PRINCETON: Young chef turns pig ears into big win on the Food Network’s ‘Chopped Junior’ show


Junior chef Evelyn Dugan poses at her station

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Evelyn Dugan has been cooking for as long as she can remember, a 13-year-old Princeton girl whose ability to make something delicious out of pig ears helped earn her earn a measure of celebrity.
Evelyn won Tuesday’s edition of Food Network’s “Chopped Junior,” a three-stage, juried reality show that pitted her against three other kid chefs vying for a $10,000 prize. She had known the outcome for months, having filmed the episode in April, but she had to keep the result a secret even from other family members until it had aired.
“It didn’t seem real,” said Evelyn, an eighth-grader at John Witherspoon Middle School, of watching herself on TV. “I was really happy and excited, and everyone else was too.”
In an interview Wednesday, she reflected on the competition, the practice she put in and the final moment of victory.
To win, she had to prepare an appetizer, entrée and dessert — all with four mystery ingredients at each 30-minute-round — during a contest that cookbook author Katie Lee, restaurateur Chris Santos and actor Alan Thicke had judged. After each course, a contestant would be “Chopped” off the show until two were left standing, Evelyn and a second contestant from Georgia, in the last round.
Her culinary interest started with her mother, Ute, teaching her how to cook. She cooks regularly at home; glazed chicken with garlic green beans and cantaloupe Quinoa is her signature dish. She is not afraid to experiment.
“I like taking old recipes and just like mixing them up and using new ingredients,” said Evelyn, a fan of chefs Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine. “I stick to the rules, but I always like to go outside the lines sometimes and just figure out new things to do. And I’m kind of creative in that way.”
At home, she and older sister, Victoria, have played “Chopped” in their kitchen, but in December, Evelyn applied to appear on the show, something she always wanted to do. As part of the application, she submitted entry videos of herself out and about in Princeton and of herself cooking. In early March, she learned that she had made it.
To prepare, she practiced more regularly to hone her skills by cooking dinner every night and lunch when possible. She even simulated conditions on the show, in which contestants are given ingredients in baskets and have to make a dish using all of them.
“My mom and I would figure out different ways to utilize different, weird basket ingredients that would be a successful dish,” she said.
“They tell you to come in with kind of a little bit of a plan, especially for dessert round if you get there,” Evelyn continued, “because they don’t want you to just be measuring random things and then come out and something exploded in the oven or something.”
For the first stage, she had to make an appetizer out of pig ears, ramps, a type of green onions, pickle ginger and Hasselback potatoes. Her dish, “a pig ear meatball with pickled ginger relish and green apple relish,” went to the judges.
“In the first round, I was pretty confident, though, because they really liked my food, so I wasn’t that nervous,” she recalled.
As the competition went on, she started to feel the nerves. Meanwhile, her father, Hugh, was watching from a green room with parents of the other contestants.
“We were kept there, we couldn’t leave,” he said. “As it went along and the first elimination happened, the parents became a little more tense.”
At one point, he grew anxious thinking Evelyn had failed to use one of the four ingredients in the entrée round, as show rules require. Thankfully for daughter and father, she had.
The ingredients for dessert-monkey bread, Queso Fresco cheese, papaya and coconut oil vinegar — led her to create a trifle.
“I knew that I put good dishes out every round,” she said, “but I was really nervous because it could go either way.”
Once she had won, Evelyn had to keep her emotions in check until the other contestant had left the stage.
“I was trying to keep it together,” she said. “It’s hard, but it’s kind of like a dream, like it doesn’t seem real.”