Finding himself in the right place at the right time, Max Aronson ’19 would not have predicted that a chance encounter in an airport with Ted Allen, the host of Food Network’s cooking competition show Chopped, would eventually lead to him winning $10,000 on the show.
However, as viewers on Thursday night watched, Aronson was named the winner of the “Teen Redeem” episode and received the grand prize, part of which he eventually donated to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital.
Aronson, a freshman in the School of Hotel Administration, hails from Saddle River, New Jersey and has been cooking “for basically as long as [he] can remember.”
“I feel like food is a really great way to express yourself, to express emotions,” he said. “It just makes me happy and I like making other people happy through food.”
Aronson, who has been working at restaurants since he was 13 years old, said he recalled his home kitchen as the beginning of his culinary career.
“My family is always the house to have family dinners for holidays,” he said. “Whenever family came over my mom would cook huge meals, and I would always be by her feet, helping her cook.”
According to Aronson, the very first thing he cooked was a plate of mashed potatoes he made at 8 years old.
“I remember very distinctly helping my mom pour milk, and I poured too much,” he said. “The mashed potato[es] [were] clearly very bad, but everyone told me it was good anyway.”
Beyond his home, Aronson was also able to refine his cooking skills through the culinary arts program of his high school.
“My school had an annual chocolate competition where we make huge cakes and the only rule is that the main ingredient has to be chocolate,” he said.
Previous to his appearance on Chopped, Aronson said he also participated in numerous cooking competitions all across the country, including SkillsUSA — a technical cooking competition — throughout his high school years.
However, Aronson credits his appearance on Chopped to “being at the right place at the right time.”
“I was living in China for a summer for a language immersion program, and on my flight back, I ran into Ted Allen, the host of the show. I casually struck up a conversation and handed him my business card. And the next week, I got an email,” he said.
Chopped — now in its 25th season — features four chefs every episode, who compete against each other in three 20-minute rounds of appetizer, entrée and dessert. After each round, one contestant is “chopped” and the last remaining chef wins the episode.
Thursday night was not Aronson’s first appearance on the show. He first appeared on Chopped in the “Teen Tournament” episode, which aired in July 2014.
Aronson, who said he was “very nervous going in,” was “chopped” after the dessert round. Following his first appearance, Aronson said he was invited back to film for the show in February.
“The second time going in, I was more confident in myself. But I also realized that it should not have been something that I should’ve been nervous for,” he said, “If I go into it with a positive attitude, I was hoping that I would come out with a good story.”
Aronson described the experience as “an affirmation” for his abilities as a cook.
“It made me feel much more confident in my abilities as a chef, my abilities to make it to something like that. It was just a really great experience,” he said.
One of the show’s greatest perks, Aronson said, was being able to “talk very personally to the judges.”
“They gave a lot of constructive criticism, which is really useful. It’s great to get some advice from professionals,” he said.
Working with fellow teen chefs was also a “great bonding experience” for Aronson.
“Being this young and having the opportunity to do something this big is what brings us together,” he said.
The filming for Thursday’s episode took place in February, and “keeping it a secret” was one of the most challenging parts of the experience for Aronson.
“I wasn’t even allowed to tell people that I was on the show until a month ago. And obviously, this past month, now that everyone knew [I was on the show], it felt so much longer because I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what happened,” he said.
Following his win, Aronson donated part of his $10,000 winnings to Memorial-Sloan Kettering Hospital.
“My baby cousin was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. She went through really rigorous treatment at the hospital, and they cured her. It is truly wonderful and I want other people to have the same experience,” Aronson said. “If there is anything I can do to make that possible, I’m going to do it.”
Since arriving in Ithaca, Aronson has continued to pursue his passion in cooking, joining organizations such as Hotel Ezra Cornell, an annual student-run conference for leaders of the hospitality industry.
Through his activities, Aronson has met many fellow Cornellians who are interested in cooking.
“It is very nice to be able to talk to someone who is as passionate about cooking as you are. It is a same-page kind of a deal,” he said.
Although he lives in a dorm at Court Hall, Aronson said he has been trying his best to keep up with cooking.
“I got a set of pots and pans from Wal-Mart,” he said. “I only have a Swiss Army Knife, so I have been cutting stuff with that but I get by.”
During his time at Cornell, Aronson said he hopes to advance towards a career in restaurant management and ultimately “make as big an impact with food as it possibly can.”
However, while he said that “food is [his] passion and what [he] wants to do in life,” he added that “it is too soon to tell” what his next step is going to be.
“I’m just going to keep eating as much as I can, keep cooking as much as I can and just see what happens,” Aronson said.