By Tammy Scileppi
Astorian Nick Testa loves to build stuff. Anything from simple bookshelves to outdoor furniture. He once cobbled together a work table out of reclaimed bowling alley floor.
His philosophy is simple: “If I can build it, I’m not going to go out to the store and buy it.”
Incredibly, he even built a full-size Volkswagen bus for a recent “Summer of Love”-themed cocktail competition at The Bonnie, a popular Astoria bar on 23rd Avenue.
So, you wouldn’t think that Testa, 30, would be a chef by profession. But he is, and he divides his time between that gastropub and Sweet Afton, another hip bar on 34th Street.
The fact that this energetic chef rocks both his talents, isn’t all that surprising. Both passions require creative flair, a real knack for assembling things (as in building tasty dishes), along with solid hand-eye coordination (working with knives to cut and prepare food), and excellent time management skills.
When asked which ingredients combine to make someone a great chef, Testa replies, “Somebody who is creative and self-driven. You have to want to make things better. It’s only on you. Nobody else can create the next best thing. You have to be the one pushing yourself to improve.”
It’s those qualities combined with a generous helping of charisma, that helped him win a fierce competition on “Weird Twist,” a captivating episode on Food Network’s “Chopped,” which premiered Nov. 28.
“I’ve been watching the show for years. It was always an interesting concept to me. When I worked with chef Rocco DiSpirito, he had done the show and that’s what really got me interested,” said Testa. “During his practice runs when he was training for the show, he’d make a huge mess of the kitchen, food all over the walls, but it was always fun and interesting to watch. When I was approached with the opportunity to participate, I’d never really thought I’d actually get on the show, but after hearing from a few friends who won, and other folks nudging me to go for it — ‘don’t worry if you lose or not’ — I decided to pull the trigger.”
According to the Food Network, on that episode (hosted by Ted Allen), the chefs learn they’ll be cooking with ingredients that are bizarre, even by “Chopped” standards. Something slimy and something strangely shaped are found in the first wonderfully weird basket. Garlic ice cream is not the most startling discovery in the entrée basket. Then, the most shocking ingredient in the dessert basket doesn’t seem so wild – until you pop it in your mouth and get a jolt!
“When I got into the competition, everything came from nostalgia for me: my foundation of cooking things that I first learned immediately popped into my head when I saw the ingredients,” Testa said. “I knew within 10 seconds of opening the basket what I was going to make. There was never any mind change.”
So, he went back to his roots.
“The first course was dictated by something I used to make when I was working with Rocco DiSpirito; the second course was inspired by something I made when I was a kid, starting off working in little Italian delis, and the third course was my fat boy intuition, something that I’d want to eat, a crowd pleaser. My main focus was making sure the flavors would work together, to make it taste good.”
DiSpirito is a healthy lifestyle crusader, James Beard award-winning chef, and highly acclaimed author of 13 books (including five New York Times bestsellers). His newest cookbook, “Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious,” debuted in October.
In that epic cooking battle, Chef Testa is armed with a triple threat of judge-pleasing ideas for each dish he concocts. During the first challenge, he’s presented with a creepy array of ingredients – sort of like a witch’s brew: black rice ramen, snails, pig’s head terrine and conehead cabbage – but as if by magic, transforms it into something awesome. He said he knew he’d be creating a classic Asian vermicelli salad, which he made almost every week with DiSpirito.
When you’re going for the gold, it’s that out of the box mindset that gives you a real edge over your opponents.
“I made a killer dressing, which is what that salad is all about: knowing how to put the flavors together,” said Testa. “I felt really confident about the first round when I saw the basket, and that’s when my nerves settled. I thought, ‘This is not going to be as hard as I thought it would be.’”
The second course consisted of stuffed lamb intestines, garlic ice cream and red runner bean blooms, so the imaginative cook prepared classic Italian sausage and peppers.
“My mother and father are both Italian, and I remember going to my grandfather Jerry’s house in Westchester on the weekends as a kid; he would always cook sausage and peppers,” Testa recalled. “In the middle of the plate would be a heaping pile of ricotta cheese. I so badly wanted to serve the dish with a piece of bread and serve it to the judges as a big sandwich, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to do what I do every day.’ Oddly enough, that’s what judge Scott Conant actually wanted; he wanted me to make a sandwich. I felt that I needed to step out of my realm though.”
The last course’s ingredients were just your “run of the mill” sweet avocado, dried ants, tang yuan, a tart and slimy Japanese starch with a nut in the middle, and Szechuan peppercorn buds (the flower). That gastro experience proved a bit scary because the buds are “totally aggressively spicy,” according to the thrill-seeking chef, who daringly ate a half of one on set and realized it was tongue-numbing, proving that cooking can be a dangerous sport at times.
On a more subdued note, it turns out you can’t go wrong with a “beautiful” ice cream sundae.
“My friend Barry Frish, who’s the test kitchen manager for Munchies, won a ‘Chopped’ episode back in the day, and his advice to me was to make ice cream. He said, ‘Get to the ice cream machine as fast as you can. It’s gonna pay off.’ Well, it turned out Testa had never used a professional ice cream machine like that before. So, he gathered all the eggs and the heavy cream he could carry, and when he saw that his competitor was grabbing similar ingredients, he jetted past her to get to the machine. “Thank god, I later learned that she was making creme brûlée,” he recalled.
Grace under fire and a cool head. That’s what it takes to run hectic gastropub kitchens, where the stress level can reach a boiling point.
The winning chef, who started with the Astoria bars on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, also works at their sister bar, The Penrose, on the Upper East Side. He has lived in Astoria for six years and says he loves that it’s very close-knit. “Anytime you spend a good amount of time at a certain bar, you get to know everybody, and through that, you meet this whole network of friends, and it starts snowballing.”
Cooking is an art and every artist needs some inspiration. So, Testa says this is how he gets his.
“Every Monday night, my colleague Russ and I go to Astoria Bowl, starting at 4 p.m. to do a few hours of bowling, and afterward, we explore the Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City. We crush the entire menu: every snack, every entree, every dessert. We photograph almost everything, and then we sit there and really taste it. We always keep those flavors in the back of our mind,” he explained.
Chef Testa draws from that inspiration when he’s cookin’ up a storm in the bar kitchens, where he’s given full creativity of all the menus. “That’s really where I shine,” he says.
The hard-working cook will be enjoying some much-needed downtime during the holidays. “I usually entertain, but this year I’ve stepped back to let other folks take the reins; I handed this holiday season over to my girlfriend’s family,” he said.
After winning $10,000 and the honor of being named a “Chopped” champion, Testa — fierce competitor that he is — is already setting his sights on “Chopped Champions.”
Every year, “Chopped” selects a group of eight winners to compete in that episode and the grand prize is $50,000. And Testa said he’d love to be a part of that.