By Veronica Dudo
Chef Deborah Pellegrino is the Executive Pastry Chef for Harrah’s Resort and Showboat Atlantic City. Recently, she was featured on the high-stakes TV competition, Food Network Challenge: Chocolate Myths, where she joined three pastry chefs from across the nation for a “Chocolate Myths” challenge. The pastry chefs had to skillfully model a chocolate creation after a mythical creature and bring it to life. She selected the legendary sea monster, the kraken and won.
Chef Pellegrino is a 1991 graduate of the Atlantic Cape Community College’s Academy of Culinary Arts. I caught up with the talented and busy chef to talk about her time on the Food Network, her winning creation and what she’s looking forward to at next weekends’ Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival.
What were some of the obstacles you dealt with heading into each challenge on the show?
They film out in Denver, Colorado so when you find out what your challenge is going to be, you not only have to figure out what kind of piece you’re going to make, make sure that you follow within the rules and guidelines of the challenge, but you also have to figure out how much you need, how you’re going to ship it, what you’re going to do if it doesn’t get out there or if it doesn’t work do you have enough to make something else—these are all the things that are going through your mind! Not just I’m going to compete for eight hours for a great prize, and compete against some of the top pastry chefs in the profession.
There was some fierce competition in the kitchen, how did you stay calm and focused?
I’m really fortunate I feel that I’m a very calm person to begin with and I really handle pressure well; I feel that I work best under pressure, I work best under pressure with last minute things and that’s how I am at my job so the more that you throw at me, I feel the better that I do.
Did you feel added pressure being on national television?
No, being on television doesn’t faze me at all. What frustrated me was the first challenge that I did—I have never had a cake fall apart except for national television and I was devastated by that so for the second challenge, I really wanted to come and redeem myself and being set back 30 minutes was hard to take then having my airbrush break at that moment I thought, what am I doing here? It just seems to be a pattern of these bad coincidences that keep happening and I thought I’m not going to let it stop me and I’m that person that just will always find a way and I refuse to let it get me down and I was going to continue to find a way that day and I did.
How did you come up with your concept?
I was asked if I wanted to compete for Food Network, a chocolate competition and the theme being chocolate mythical creatures so I said absolutely and that’s all that I knew when I committed. My original thought wasn’t even to do a kraken and then when I started thinking, part of the challenge was having to make this creature come to life and I thought it’s chocolate and chocolate is fragile; and to really make a piece that would come through and almost tell a story, for me personally I felt it had to be something that was more monstrous and a ‘creature’ and that’s what led me down the path of the kraken. I had each one of the tentacles move and then the ship that the kraken was attacking rocked up and down and back and forth.
Not only did you gather the ingredients, bake and decorate; but you had to put the entire scene together properly from a technical aspect. Do you think people forget everything that goes into creating something like this?
Yes, I definitely think so. I have to say I’m really spoiled because there’s an amazing team over here; Eric Van Sciver who works in the facilities department and he is the one who helped create the motor part for me when I’d come and say, ‘Alright, I want this to move, I want it to move like this; I need the boat to rock I need it to move four inches up,’ I’d give specific dimensions and they’d make it come to life for me.
How intense was that challenge of modeling a chocolate creation after a mythical creature — and then having to bring it to life?
That is one of the things that I like to do—take something that’s not real per say and make it real. I think that’s what the beauty is about pastry and chocolate; you can take something and absolutely create whatever it is in your mind and for me to create the kraken I thought it was great! Especially since I use to work on a private yacht and I really respect the sea. I felt that it was an extreme challenge but it was a lot of fun. I use to live on a ship on the sea for three years so I love being on the water, I love anything that has to do with the water and I firmly believe that there are creatures out there that we just don’t know about.
Did your experiences living on a ship and traveling the world help you for this challenge?
Yes, I was a cruise chef on a 204 foot private yacht and I traveled around the world for almost three years. I was very fortunate with that that was just amazing. I got to go to places such as Galapagos, Tahiti, Australia, China, Japan, Northern Europe, Russia; I mean it was just incredible. I also feel a big part to make it on the Food Network Challenge is the current job that I have now here with Showboat, Harrah’s and Caesars Entertainment it’s such a challenge that requires extreme multitasking but the rewards are just endless. They really empower me at my job here to do whatever I want and be as creative as I can, so I think that really helped prepare me for challenge.
What are your duties as the Executive Pastry Chef at Showboat and Harrah’s Casinos?
I create the menus for approximately 23 restaurants at both Showboat and Harrah’s and I oversee all of the pastries that are created for those restaurants such as the buffets, the coffee shops, the steakhouses, Italian rooms; so I get to have fun in creating the menus and then developing the pastries to be served in the outlets.
What made you become a pastry chef?
It’s funny, I went to culinary school to cook and I’ve always had a wicked sweet tooth and I thought, ‘you know maybe if I work in a bake shop, I’ll be done with it, I’ll overeat anything possible and I’ll be tired of sweets and it hasn’t happened yet! (Laughs) I love what I do.
Besides receiving the $10,000 prize, how important was it to you to clinch the winning title?
It’s funny, honestly I almost forgot about the money because it was about the significance about saying I’m the best at this challenge I was on my game for this show, for this particular competition and I brought it and I did the best that I could and that to me is priceless.
You will be participating in the Food Network’s Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival next weekend—what are you looking forward to the most?
I love all of the events for the Food and Wine because it’s just a lot of fun. It caters to everyone’s tastes if you like to see the Food Network celebrities, if you want to participate it caters to everyone but three of my favorite events are the Pool event at Harrah’s Thursday night which just kicks off the whole weekend—it’s a lot of fun; Saturday, the Sweet & Stylish at Caesars is just phenomenal to combine food with fashion and music, it’s a great time; and then the Gospel Blues Brunch on Sunday is another great event.
BUZZ @ THE BEACH
The July 29 weekend is packed with lots of entertainment at the shore! The Fourth Annual Food Network’s Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival kicks off Thursday night at The Pool After Dark inside Harrah’s Casino with Guy Fieri, Pat and Gina Neely, Robert Irvine, Sunny Anderson, Deborah Pellegrino, Michael Green, Ivy Stark, Divya Gugnani, Darryl Harmon, Jennifer Mueller and Barry Sexton. Meanwhile, New Kids On The Block and The Backstreet Boys along with Matthew Morrison have a concert at Boardwalk Hall. Kendra Wilkinson will host the ½ Way to New Year’s Eve party at The Pool in Harrah’s while a capella group Straight No Chaser performs their concert in the casino. Rodney Carrington will be at the Hilton while Chazz Palminteri stars in A Bronx Tale at Caesars and Resorts presents Gino Vannelli and Jon Secada. Also, Borgata welcomes The Decemberists; Bob Saget; Steely Dan; A-Trak; and A Night of Comedy featuring Joey Kola, Richie Minervinni, Joe Moffa, Don Learned, Tony V, Jodi Weiner, Gemini, and Jeff Pirami.