Vancouver student Justine Balin recently walked off with the top prize at Chopped Teen Canada, leaving the reality television show with a $10,000 award for dishes she prepared in the studio kitchen last June.
“I’ve watched the show forever, so to be on it was a dream come true, and winning was the cherry on top,” the Grade 12 King David High School student admitted.
She entered the competition last summer at the encouragement of Hilit Nurick, her food instructor at school, and had to pass a series of interviews before learning she’d be one of 16 teen contestants accepted on the Food Network show. Balin and her mother, Jennifer Shecter-Balin, flew to Toronto for the taping of the show, which consisted of three rounds in which each contestant was given a mystery basket of ingredients and asked to prepare a dish of his or her own creation.
Balin’s first basket contained canned flaked ham, Gorgonzola cheese, dried tart cherries and chocolate mint cookies. “The ham threw me off a bit!” the 17-year-old said. “I’ve never had that before. But I made a salad and used the ham, cookies, herbs and egg in a patty to go with it.” That dish sent her to the second round, where her ingredient basket included raw, stuffed clams, wasabi cocktail sauce, dehydrated vegetables and watermint. Her resulting concoction was a seafood soup with watermint pesto and grilled bread.
“They knew she was Jewish,” Shecter-Balin said, “and when they presented her with tinned ham and Gorgonzola, I thought to myself, she’s lost it. But to see her think quickly on her feet and come up with a flaked ham fritter – I was beyond impressed!”
Balin’s dessert dish was cookies and cream ice cream with June plum compote and caramel brittle.
Cooking has been a passion since she was a child, Balin said. “Even at age two, I was helping my mom, stirring the pots. At five, I started cooking with my mom and grandma, Linda Shecter, and I never stopped. Even now, I’m always in the kitchen, often making dinner for the family if I come home earlier than my mom. And every year I host thanksgiving for 20 girls in my grade.”
In her application, Balin made it clear she was Jewish-Italian and communicated her pleasure in attending a small, independent Jewish day school that also offered a foods program.
“Being Jewish is a strong part of who she is and we weren’t going to gloss over it,” Shecter-Balin said. “But dietary restrictions meant nothing on this show – they spare no one. I’ve seen vegetarians being forced to work with protein and people of different cultures being forced to prepare foods they’d never usually prepare.”
Balin said she would recommend the show to any teens who can perform well under pressure, who love to cook and who feel confident in front of a camera. “It’s scary to be on national television cooking, but it was such an incredible experience. The best part was seeing how a show like that operates. They build a story and want you to stick to it. I found it really interesting to see how the show runs.”
She’s saving her prize money to travel the world after she completes her university studies in public health.