For San Diegan James Foran, winning Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ is one sweet deal

Grossmont College pastry instructor James Foran beat the clock to become a winner on "Chopped," the Food Network's high-stress cooking competition show. His episode aired on March 24.
(Kris Saradpon)

After winning the high-stress TV competition, Grossmont College pastry instructor is teaching from home and doing some stress-baking. Here, he talks pastry, comfort baking and reality-show terror.


Like many of his fellow shut-ins, Tierrasanta chef James Foran is coping with the stresses of our current coronavirus reality by doing a little baking. But because he is a longtime pastry instructor at Grossmont College, his results might not be your results.

For instance, his sourdough starter is being transformed into black-olive and lemon-herb bread. And his idea of a fun dessert? That would be Canelés de Bordeaux, a tricky French pastry concoction involving custard, caramelized crepe batter, copper molds and expert timing.

Fortunately, there is one Chef James baking result that you can always replicate at home. And at this point in time, it’s the only result that really matters.

“Baking is so comforting,” Foran said during a recent phone interview. “I never get tired of that satisfaction of opening up the oven when something you’ve made is done. It is definitely relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve been baking a whole lot these days.”

But just as Foran is not like other stuck-at-home bakers, he is also not like all other chefs.

On March 24, he became the first champion on the new season of “Chopped,” the Food Network show that challenges chefs with making a three-course gourmet meal under only-on-reality-TV circumstances. Each round comes with a basket of oddball ingredients — gummy bears, pigs feet, Buddha’s hand — that must be used and a countdown clock that does not stop.

The four competing chefs get 20 minutes for the first round (usually an appetizer), with 30 minutes for each of the subsequent rounds, usually a main course and a dessert. The last chef standing leaves with a cool $10,000 and a sweaty survivor’s story.

“It really was terrifying,” the 50-year-old Foran said of filming his all-dessert episode, which was shot in New York last May. “I remember thinking, ‘Clearly, they would have to give us more time than they show on TV,’ but no. What you see on TV is it. Once you open up that basket, it’s go time.

From baskets containing such culinary curve balls as chocolate-covered shrimp chips, kumquats and sweet beef jerky, Foran and his fellow pastry-chef contestants had to whip up chocolate desserts that were crunchy (Round 1), gooey (Round 2) and finally, fruity.

And as if the whole thing wasn’t tough enough, Foran upped the Round 1 terror ante by choosing to make ice cream, a kitchen risk that has been the downfall of many a “Chopped” chef. His chocolate and honey ice cream with shrimp-chip crumble was a big hit with the judges, which helped make up for his beignet bobble in Round 3.

When the cocoa dust cleared, however, Foran was $10,000 richer. But the payoff came with a challenge attached. It was self-inflicted, but still.

“A few months after the show was filmed, I got this check in the mail. It came from some company I didn’t recognize, so I thought it was one of those B.S. checks,” Foran said with a sheepish chuckle. “I almost threw it out.”

He kept the check, which he used to remodel his kitchen. The prize was big, but it wasn’t the first time Foran took a risk that paid off.

After working as a dishwasher and then a prep cook in high school, Foran enjoyed the kitchen culture so much, he decided to go to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. He started his career training with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Drake Hotel in New York City before moving on to restaurants in San Francisco and to a stint as executive pastry chef at the Bellagio Hotel’s Picasso restaurant in Las Vegas.

The native New Yorker came to San Diego in 2011, where he decided the best cure for professional chef burnout was to go back to school to study massage therapy. He did that for a happy year and a half before a visit to a pop-up Francois Payard restaurant at the Westgate Hotel turned into a job.

“I love doing pastry because it is not a necessity. People will order dessert in a restaurant or they’ll buy baked goods because they are celebrating. It is a little bit more pressure, but I do really enjoy that it is a little more specialized and technique-drive,” said Foran, who was the pastry chef at Arterra Restaurant in Del Mar and is now a consulting pastry chef at Market Restaurant + Bar in Del Mar.

Foran is now in his 14th year of sharing his love of comforting flavors and challenging craftsmanship with his students at Grossmont College, where he is the head of the culinary arts program. The kid who went from washing dishes to creating happiness on a plate is now in the business of making other kitchen kids’ dreams come true.

The rewards are sweeter than chocolate-covered shrimp chips, and a lot more sustaining.

“What is the most rewarding thing is seeing a student five years down the road and they are happy and successful and tapping into talents they didn’t know they had,” Foran said. “Being a mentor to somebody has such value to me.”