"Cooking in a restaurant and cooking for the love of it are two different things for me," said Gardner, whose parents, Don and Cindy, attend Sam Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Cartersville. "[At] the restaurant, we [offer] contemporary Southern. With everything I do, I try to make it seasonal. You cook by what vegetables and fruits are in season. If it's the summertime, you make it a little bit lighter. If it is the wintertime, you can go a little heartier.
"But personally, I like working with what's called offal, and that's another word for organs. I feel it doesn't take a whole lot of skill to be able to grill a rib eye or something like that, but if you can turn pigs' feet into something delicious or lamb kidneys or brains or things like that -- if you can take the time and work with those and make those delicious -- then you're cooking."
Next week, Gardner will be able to showcase his creativeness and ability to work with unique ingredients as he competes on the Food Network's "Chopped." Filmed in September in New York, the episode will debut on Feb. 8 at 10 p.m.
According to www.foodnetwork.com, "Passion and expertise rule the kitchen on the fast-paced new series, 'Chopped.' Hosted by Ted Allen (Food Detectives), the series challenges four up-and-coming chefs to turn a selection of everyday ingredients into an extraordinary three-course meal. After each course, a contestant gets 'chopped' until the last man or woman left standing claims victory. Each week, a rotating panel of culinary elite judges including Alex Guarnaschelli, Aaron Sanchez and Geoffrey Zakarian will decide whose dishes shine the brightest and award the winner $10,000."
Even though Gardner cannot reveal many details about the episode before it airs, he did share two of the appetizer ingredients. As with the other rounds, he had to pair the provided items -- catfish and marshmallows -- with other ingredients in the show's pantry to create an appetizing dish.
"I tried to prepare as much as I could by doing timed challenges with random assortment of ingredients and researching every episode of the show and what ingredients had been used and tried to find a pattern, things like that -- trying to get my mind conditioned to it and ... recipes that I could make very quickly, depending on what ingredients came up," Gardner said. "But as far as [competing on] the show, [it is a] pressure cooker in there. ... The ingredients in the basket are designed not to go together. So when you open the first basket you see four random ingredients and you have 20 minutes to create a meal. You make four plates of the same dish and then at the end of the 20 minutes you bring your food to the judges. They critique them, and then they eliminate or 'chop' the weakest dish after each round.
"[In] the first basket, we had to pair catfish and marshmallows. You just have to think of the essence of what each ingredient is and I found cooking to the unfamiliar ingredients made life a little easier. So if I composed my dish around two of the ingredients in the first basket, the marshmallows and then something else that kind of lent itself toward going in one direction with it, then the rest of the dish, like the catfish could be a blank slate. So I wouldn't cook to the catfish per se. I would cook to the marshmallows and then make the catfish fit the rest of dish."
On Feb. 8, Gardner is looking forward to watching the edited version of the show at a public viewing party from 9 to 11 p.m. at The Original El Taco, 1186 N. Highland Ave. N.E. in Atlanta. For more information, call 404-873-4656 or visit www.eltaco-atlanta.com/.
"It's going to be great and quite surreal, just to see him compete because it's a nerve-racking competition" said Don Gardner, past president of the Cartersville Rotary Club. "I'm not much of a chef at all, so I never watch any cooking shows but it's not a gimmicky show. They give them [three] baskets and after each basket, somebody is 'chopped' that's not as good as the other ones. So they start off with appetizers, then they go to entree, then dessert, if they make the finals. And they put all kinds of strange ingredients that you would never think to cook with in there and they have to create on the spot. The have 20 minutes to [cook an appetizer] -- to create, cook, plate and serve -- then 30 minutes for the other two courses and along the way they 'chop' each person until they're down to the final two."