A Frontera Grill Chef on What It's Like to Win 'Chopped'
December 7, 2023
Get more recipes, food news, and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.
Update: Javauneeka Jacobs won the entire Chopped Julia Child competition in an episode broadcast on December 12.
When Javauneeka Jacobs was given a pig’s head and caramels made from duck fat and told to cook an entree with them to be judged by accomplished food professionals on TV, she wasn’t fazed. “I have a dish at the restaurant that uses pig head, so I am not intimidated,” she says in voiceover. The show is the Food Network’s Chopped; “the restaurant” is Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago, where Jacobs is the sous chef, or second in command in the kitchen.
Jacobs was competing against three other chefs in a Julia Child-themed challenge that offers a prize of a Julia Child-centric trip to France worth $25,000. On the strength of the cassoulet she made with that pig’s head as well as an appetizer and dessert, she won her first round and made it to the final, which will air on December 12 and reveal the winner of the trip.
Back at home, “Chef J’s Cassoulet Mexicano” is available on the menu at Frontera Grill through the month of December, in honor of her success on Chopped. While the cassoulet she made on the show was classically French, her version at Frontera incorporates Mexican flavors in the form of duck carnitas, pickled morita chiles, housemade chorizo, and chicharrones.
“It took me about a week to really get this dish right,” Jacobs says, but “I think this dish has been perfected. Each component has really been thought about, and you can definitely taste the French and you can definitely taste the Mexican.”
Jacobs and her team cook the different components of the cassoulet slowly and separately before combining it all into a warming comfort – a luxury of time she didn’t have on Chopped. The show asks competitors to make a three-course meal – appetizer, entree, and dessert, one at a time – under the pressure of a clock, with each course incorporating a basket of four surprise ingredients. In the case of the Julia Child competition, the baskets are nominally based on one of Child’s dishes, such as cassoulet – although Child presumably wouldn’t be serving instant mashed potatoes with her coq au vin or using an ostrich egg to make chocolate mousse. One of four initial competitors is eliminated after each course is judged by a three-person panel, leaving a winner after dessert.
“When we opened up those baskets, the anticipation was crazy to me,” Jacobs recalls. “I’m like, ‘What is in this basket?’ There’s no time. Once you open up that basket, it’s go time.”
Jacobs was the youngest competitor, and was intimidated to go up against chefs who owned their own restaurants or ran their own kitchens. But she didn’t practice beforehand, because “there’s no way to prepare for a competition like this,” she says. She simply relied on her years of training and work in the demanding, high-level kitchens of Bayless’ restaurants.
“I think being at Frontera Grill has really given me the strength to perform on that competition because we’re always changing the menus, we’re always being creative,” she says.
Almost her entire professional culinary career has been in Bayless’ orbit. She started off at his fast-casual Xoco while studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. After an internship “prepping stuff for 30,000 people on a slow day” at Walt Disney World, she was offered a job cooking on the line at Frontera Grill. She eventually moved to the fine-dining Topolobampo before becoming Bayless’ culinary assistant, testing and developing recipes for home cooks on his YouTube channel. Three years ago, she was promoted to sous chef at Frontera, where she runs the production kitchen and is “really the heartbeat of the kitchen.”
She doesn’t just make sauces and prep menus as sous; she has also developed her own dishes, like the cassoulet, and menus, like one focusing on Afro-Mestizo cooking for Black History Month.
“We get to be creative, whether it’s learning about the African influence on Mexican food or seeing what’s in season and creating a traditional Mexican dish with the fruits and vegetables that we have,” she says. “I’m cooking every day, which makes me better. And I’m just learning so much every day.”
Jacobs grew up in the small farming town of Harvard, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border. Her mom is “an incredible cook, but she never let me actually cook anything in the kitchen,” she says. But Jacobs constantly asked questions, and would even observe the parents of her friends in their kitchens. Jacobs found herself fascinated when her best friend’s mother, who is from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, would clean nopales or make pozole.
“My friend was like, ‘Are you going to hang out with me, or stay in the kitchen?’” Jacobs recalls with a laugh. “From that point, I’ve always had a love of Mexican food.” Given that love and her appreciation of agriculture from growing up in Harvard, the job at Frontera feels like a “full circle” to her. (Bayless has long been a champion of local farmers, supporting them through not just buying their produce but also through grants via the Frontera Farm Foundation.)
Jacobs clearly feels at home cooking Mexican food: she made a coq au vin tostada for her first course on Chopped. But she also retains French technique from her education and her work in sauces as a sous, executing a dessert crepe and the cassoulet for the other courses on the show. The judge Scott Conant said the latter was “as close to a perfect plate of inspired cassoulet as I’ve ever had,” despite the time constraints.
Such praise and success highlighted how much skill Jacobs has in the kitchen. “I didn’t think I would make it past the first round,” she says. “Coming out of it and experiencing how creative I am and how well-prepared I am really gave me a nice boost of confidence,” she says.
Bayless didn’t need a reality cooking show to prove to him Jacobs’ potential. “Chef J is a hard-working and determined chef,” he says. “I am confident that if she cooks as well as she does at Frontera Grill, she will have an excellent chance of winning Chopped!”