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Courtesy of Food Network
(From l. to r.) Host Ted Allen talks to chefs Claire Campbell, Walter Crutchfield Jr., Ernie Mellor and Melvin “Boots” Johnson before the appetizer round.
By Merle Exit

Melvin “Boots” Johnson, the owner of Queens Bully in Forest Hills, was recently crowned champion on Food Network’s “Chopped,” winning a spot in the $50,000 Grill Masters grand finale, beating out three other chefs with his Memphis-style barbecue.

Johnson will face off against the champions from Kansas City, Texas and North Carolina to determine who is the ultimate grill master.

The California native revealed that he first started to cook when he was in the sixth grade.

“My parents owned a restaurant called ‘That Barbecue Place’ and that is where I got the bug for smoking meats,” Johnson told TimesLedger. “Some years later, after my parents closed the restaurant, I continued to pursue this career working with several chefs and going through many smoked meat challenges.”

When Johnson first came to New York, he found work at one of chef Bobby Flay’s restaurants. He went on to take a position as a banquet chef at a hotel in Las Vegas and followed it up by being named an executive chef at a neighboring Las Vegas restaurant.

“Being a chef is not a job but a lifestyle, always perfecting your craft,” Johnson said.

This is not Johnson’s first Food Network competition, as he also competed on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” where he finished in second place. He had an idea of what he was getting into this time around.

“I asked my cooks to prepare baskets, some of which had very odd ingredients,” he said. “As for the ‘Chopped’ kitchen, I needed to get a sense of where the accompanying foods and spices were located, as it was much different from my own restaurant. I also keep a sort of rolodex of recipes in my mind.”

For this particular episode, Johnson said he needed to make sure that Memphis-style cooking was featured in each round. Each chef is given a basket containing the same four ingredients. They are required to use — all of them, or part of them — in that round of cooking.

In the first round, Johnson opened the first basket to find barbecued nachos, eggplant, Tennessee whiskey and pork tenderloin. That sparked an idea to concoct a grilled pork tenderloin with a mole sauce and grilled slices of eggplant. He utilized the chips from the nachos and made use of the whiskey in the sauce.

In the second round, the basket revealed chicken legs, string beans, quick-cook grits, and “fool’s gold loaf”, which turned out to be a huge peanut butter and jelly sandwich with bacon. One of the Johnson’s signature items at Queens Bully — located at 113-30 Queens Blvd. — is the bacon that he smokes himself and leaves the rind on for the “crunch.” Johnson whipped up a rub and added some hickory flavoring. Rather than use the whole chicken leg, he used the thighs and goat cheese to give an extra flavor and texture to the grits.

The dessert round didn’t have anything too odd, other than a barbecue-flavored ice cream. A blueberry pastry, peaches and honey-comb candy were among the other ingredients.

The grill master finale is set to air Aug. 26 at 9 p.m. on the Food Network as “Boots” invites the public to join him for a viewing party at Queens Bully. Those interested in attending can RSVP by sending an e-mail to info@queensbully.com.

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