On the set of Food Network’s “Chopped,” Chef Kristina Wisneski, ’13, plates her dessert for judges. Photo courtesy of Food Network.

'Chopped' Champ

Kristina Wisneski, ‘13, becomes second culinary arts alum to win popular show

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor

Published July 29, 2019

Kristina Wisneski, ’13
Kristina Wisneski, ’13

Kristina Wisneski’s earliest cooking memory is in her great-grandmother’s kitchen in Iowa. Her childhood in an eastern Pennsylvania household that prepared meals together, with main courses made by dad and desserts baked by mom, shaped her interest in a culinary career.

Likewise, it was a shared family activity that helped lead her to the set of the Food Network’s popular competition show “Chopped,” where she hurriedly whipped up dishes with surprise ingredients and set them before renowned chefs, who eliminated one contestant after each round.

“I’ve always loved watching the show with my parents,” Wisneski said. “My dad and I always try to figure out what we would make if we were in the same situation.”

The musings paid off. Wisneski was the last chef standing at the end of the hourlong episode titled “Wonton Wonder,” which premiered on Feb. 12. During the bout, she bested three other chefs. For each of three rounds, the contestants were given a basketful of required – and usually unexpected – ingredients and 20 minutes to prepare a masterpiece. The challenge tests the chefs to think creatively and combine flavors tastefully.

In the appetizer round, the 2013 Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate managed to impress judges with the flavor in her steamed wontons, made with a mystery basketful of ingredients that included scallions, water chestnuts, wonton wrappers and hot dog eclairs.

In the entrée round, when the three remaining chefs opened their baskets, they found pheasant, green tomatoes, tepache liqueur and “trash can nachos.” Wisneski, a native of Whitehall, had the advantage of hunting and cooking pheasants with her family. She again pleased the judges’ palates with roasted pheasant, green-tomato salsa verde and a flavorful crumble made from the loaded nachos.

Alongside Penn College students, Wisneski prepares ingredients for Tredici Mushroom Toast at the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Show. As a student, Wisneski volunteered to assist professional chefs on the same stage. Photo courtesy of Davey Rudy/PA Preferred

In the final round, Wisneski and her remaining competitor, Chef Patrick Carter, of Indiana, were challenged to concoct delectable desserts from moon drop grapes, apricot paste, bagel chips and pickle cupcakes.

“I instantly thought of sweet salty,” Wisneski said. “Who doesn’t like that?”

She served judges a port wine and moon drop grape mousse with an apricot and mint sauce.

She credits her ability to successfully combine flavors – even odd ones like apricots and pickles – to an adventurous palate.

“School really helped to teach us all different combinations, as well,” she said.

Wisneski earned a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and systems and has fond memories of her time at Penn College – even nine-to-10-hour labs.

“I will always remember how much Chef Mike (Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts) took me under his wing,”
she said. “He really taught me a lot and showed me that you can balance life and being a chef.

The dining room at Amis Tratoria in Devon, where Wisneski is executive chef.
The dining room at Amis Tratoria in Devon, where Wisneski is executive chef. Photo courtesy of Kelly Smith Photography

“All of the classes taught us new things and kept us on our toes. I loved that our labs were like real-life working shifts, because this job is no joke!” she added. “I also loved how small our classes were, because I made some of my best friends in college. We used to get together for dinners and wine tastings, which were always fun!”

Aiding her “Chopped” success, she credits a Culinary Competition and Skills Assessment course that she took with Chef Mary G. Trometter, assistant professor of hospitality management/culinary arts, and experiences volunteering on the PA Preferred “Culinary Connection” stage at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. 

At the show, students spend two days preparing audience samples and providing on-stage assistance as Pennsylvania chefs demonstrate recipes for the Farm Show’s attendees. The students then engage in a “School Cooking Challenge.” In Trometter’s course and during the Farm Show challenge, Wisneski and classmates whipped up dishes for a judges panel using assigned ingredients.

Wisneski also did some late-night cramming before appearing on “Chopped.”

“The night before (taping the episode) I couldn’t sleep, because I was terrified I would get something I didn’t know how to prepare, so I was looking up YouTube videos!” she said.

Since her 2013 graduation, Wisneski has been making a name for herself in the Philadelphia food scene, where she is executive chef of Amis Trattoria in Devon, a Main Line suburb of the city. The Italian eatery focuses on simple, seasonal recipes. It is part of the URBN portfolio of brands.

Wisneski began her culinary career at Savona in Gulph Mills, another Main Line suburb, where fellow Penn College culinary arts graduate Chef Andrew Masciangelo is the executive chef and co-owner. While at Savona, Wisneski was included in a Zagat restaurant guide roundup of “20 Sous-Chefs to Watch in Philly.”

“That was surreal,” the young chef said.

She then joined Zavino Hospitality Group, where she was able to work at each of the company’s restaurants.

“It was great to see (restaurant) openings and all the different food they served,” she said.

“When I got the call from URBN for Amis in Devon, I almost died!” Wisneski said. “It was so exciting, because Amis has always been my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia, and Chef Brad Spence (the culinary director) is one of the best Italian chefs I’ve ever met. He teaches and pushes us constantly.”

She’s happy with the place her culinary career has led her.

“I plan on staying with URBN. I like what they have to offer. I love being in Philly, and I’m not sure I see myself going elsewhere, but who knows?” she said. “I think eventually – like way down the road – I will end up teaching. It’s always been an interest of mine. But for now, I plan on eating, teaching, learning and, of course, traveling around the world!” 

Among her spring dinner menu dishes are seared sea scallops with asparagus, preserved lemon and roasted red pepper.
Among her spring dinner menu dishes are seared sea scallops with asparagus, preserved lemon and roasted red pepper. Photo courtesy of Amis Trattoria

Other hospitality graduates on national television

Kristi (Ritchey) Genova, ’02, culinary arts technology, competed on the Food Network’s “Extreme Chef” in 2002 and made an appearance on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” 

Jason Hopple, ’00, hospitality management, demonstrated a July 4 drink recipe on VH1’s “Morning Buzz” in 2012.

James Parker, ’91, culinary arts, a top fruit and vegetable sculptor, has appeared on several Food Network series, including “Food Network Challenge” (as a winning competitor and a judge), “Sugar Rush,” “Food Landscapes” and “Chef vs. City.” He’s also appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, “The Rachel Ray Show,” “Fox and Friends” and The Home Shopping Network.

Dean Yasharian, ’03, culinary arts technology, won an episode of “Chopped” in 2009 and whipped up British dishes on NBC’s “Today” show during the 2012 London Olympics, when Yasharian was executive chef of London’s Bar Boulud.