Vancouver Jewish day school student Justine Balin doesn’t eat canned ham or stuffed clams, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from winning $10,000. The talented young chef recently used the treyf ingredients to whip up delicious dishes earning her the title of Chopped Canada Teen Champion.
Balin, a senior at King David High School, was crowned on January 28 when she beat three other Canadian teenagers in the popular televised Food Network culinary competition requiring cooks to make appetizers, main dishes, and desserts using baskets of mystery ingredients. Competitors have no idea what items will be, and sometimes they are unfamiliar — or ones they do not eat for religious, health or ethical reasons. The contest is timed, with the cooks given only 30 minutes for each round.
“Chopped” contestants are usually adult professional chefs, but occasionally the show airs special episodes featuring accomplished underage amateur cooks.
Balin wowed the celebrity judges, Mark McEwan, Roger Mooking and Antonio Park — especially in the entree round with her fish soup incorporating the stuffed clams and wasabi cocktail sauce, garnished with toast points spread with a pesto she made from water mint. Her dessert composed of ice cream made from crème fraîche and cookies and cream spread, crunchy brittle with red pepper flakes, and a June plum fruit compote was equally impressive.
“I always dreamed of being on a TV cooking competition, so I had to try to get on ‘Chopped’ when I got the chance to apply,” Balin told The Times of Israel.
Balin, 17, was forwarded an application to be a “Chopped” contestant by Hilit Nurick, her culinary arts teacher at King David. Balin has been involved in the school’s food and nutrition classes since eighth grade. The school has a kosher dairy kitchen, and the students prepare food for special dinners and events.
However, Balin’s love for cooking and baking started prior to high school. She remembers helping her mother cook as far back as when she was just two years old. As a young girl, she honed her skills in private cooking lessons with Nurick, who even had Balin come along with her for several cooking demonstration appearances on local morning TV shows.
Her grandmother, who is Italian and converted to Judaism when she married Balin’s grandfather, has also been a culinary influence. In fact, the fish seafood soup that impressed the “Chopped” judges was inspired by a kind of soup that Balin’s grandmother makes for the family.
The fish seafood soup that impressed the ‘Chopped’ judges was inspired by a kind of soup that Balin’s grandmother makes for the family
The kitchen is Balin’s favorite room in the house. She is often in there baking or cooking for her parents, two brothers, extended family and friends. She finds cooking and baking to be good de-stressors.
“The kitchen is my happy place,” she said.
When she’s not in the kitchen or at school, Balin can be found found working a part-time job behind the counter at Vancouver’s Butter Baked Goods Bakery and Cafe. She also teaches a Sunday morning preschool class at the Reform-affiliated Temple Sholom, and is a member of the synagogue’s youth group board. In the summers she is a counselor at Camp BB Riback, a Jewish summer camp on the shores of Pine Lake, Alberta.
Balin found out she was chosen to compete on “Chopped” while on the March of the Living, the annual Holocaust education program that brings teens to Poland and Israel, in spring 2016.
“My mom emailed me that I was chosen and I was so excited. It was a weird feeling to be so excited in Krakow. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of emotions because I was in Poland for very heavy reasons,” Balin said.
Balin had to keep her acceptance to the cooking competition confidential for a while, until she flew to Toronto with her mother for two days of intensive filming last June.
“It was really interesting to see how the show operates after having watched it for so many years. It was so hot in the kitchen with white lights pounding on you, cameras in your face, and four hot stoves and four hot grills all going at once,” Balin said.
But once she started cooking, her nerves calmed and she “got into my zone,” as she put it.
“I think it was more nerve wracking for my mother watching from another room off to the side,” she said.
Although Balin said onscreen that she planned to use the $10,000 prize money to travel during a gap year between high school and college, she has decided to go straight to university after graduation.
Balin hopes to pursue public health studies, and she would love to incorporate her love of food somehow— perhaps by focusing on global food security or nutrition issues.
Already well travelled, Balin plans on using the money she won on “Chopped” to travel more at a later date. Among her desired destinations is Israel, where she has already been twice.
“I was in Israel on an eighth grade school trip and then on March of the Living. Those were relatively short, packed trips. I want to go back and stay for a longer time, in part so I can taste all the great Israeli food,” she said.