Lehigh University Grad Student Gina Gullo Stars on Chopped
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for Lehigh University graduate student Gina Gullo, that’s pretty much how her passion for cooking began. When she moved off campus in college, she no longer had a meal plan and had to start cooking for herself. It didn’t take her long to get started on a fruitful path.
“I got spoiled on meal plan food and wanted nicer things, so I started watching a lot of Food Network and experimenting,” says Gullo. “I eventually got my hands on family recipes. I wanted to be that grandma that made the yummy stuff, and I kept going.”
Trying out for Chopped seemed like a natural progression for the passionate home chef with a penchant for medieval re-enactment. Gullo is currently finishing up her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Lehigh University with sights set on finishing in May. Student government and diversity studies keep her busy in addition to being a mom and wife.
“Chopped has been my favorite TV show for a long time,” she says. “I always talked back to the screen: ‘You better render that bacon fat!’ Then a friend shared a casting call on Facebook for people who regularly dress up to be on Chopped. I am a medieval re-enacter and cosplayer. It seemed perfect, so I applied.”
All of Gullo’s dressing up paid off. She received a call 24 hours after she applied to the casting call asking her to come for an on-screen interview. That same week she traveled to New York and talked about herself for an hour.
“I’m not sure if it was carrying a self-made helmet and sword through the subway or just being friendly, but I made it!” she says.
The Lehigh Valley local was well-prepared to star on Chopped, thanks to her culinary skills. While she loves tacos, bacon, dates, cheese, and ice cream, she especially enjoys making complicated dishes—things like pan caramels, custards, French meringues, marshmallows, and sauces—because it’s “almost like a puzzle.”
“I love playing with spices,” she says. “We can’t just have a spice rack in our home. We have a spice cabinet. I also love using acids like citrus or vinegars to deglaze pans. It still seems like magic when the pan goo becomes a yummy sauce.”
Once the surreal experience of being able to star on her favorite show was in motion, it was only a matter of time until the filming. While Chopped didn’t ask for anything in advance, Gullo decided to do some preparation of her own. Her husband brought home mystery baskets at random and timed her in the kitchen as she prepared different kinds of food. She also hosted an open house one week before taping where her friends could bring baskets, giving her a round and judging her creations. That day she prepared eight rounds of food!
For preliminary details, the film crew met at Gullo’s home from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. to gather background footage for the program. When the day of the show arrived, the contestants headed to Chopped’s studio, the Chelsea Market in New York City—the very same space that has seen the likes of Emeril and Iron Chef America. Gullo arrived that day at 4:30 a.m. for filming and didn’t leave until 10 p.m.
“The set was all decorated, so there was an extra challenge of avoiding the decorations,” Gullo says. “The coolest part of the Halloween angle, other than costumes, was probably the lighting they used for lightning. They had three kinds of lightning lamps!”
During the show, Gullo dazzled the judges with her appetizer, a Zombie Hand Face-Melting Taco. For the entrée, she creatively presented a pork loin seasoned with coffee and cocoa. Gullo made it through the round neck and neck with drag queen Schwa De Vivre, with both hearing from the judges that they’d had a little trouble keeping the pork from drying out. Still, they were happy to move on to the next and final round.
The judging portion between each round typically took the judges about 15 minutes. For the final round as the two remaining contestants waited, nearly an hour and a half passed before they learned of their fates. Gullo ended up coming in a very close second place when her Goat Cheese Spider Ice Cream got “chopped” due to the horned melon’s flavor getting lost in the dish. Gullo cited the horned melon as the most challenging aspect of the day.
“It had almost no flavor and was full of seeds,” Gullo explains. “It was more like a cucumber filled with watered down honey. I tried to use it as a sweetener, but it wasn’t strong enough. Other challenges were my height (I had to keep moving the one step stool they had everywhere), forgetting to double check my cooking temps the morning of the show, and my contacts, which were starting to dry out by the dessert round.”
Despite those challenges, though, she put up a valiant fight and got to live out something that, for most people, is something only from their wildest dreams.
“At one point in the judging, Scott said that I could cook for him anytime,” Gullo says. “It was such a flattering compliment. If Scott judged the show alone, I’d be $10,000 richer!”