Cooking Classes, Food

NOLA Chef Syrena Johnson and how ‘Chopped’ help change her life

Her first job was at McDonalds. Now, she’s a reigning ‘Chopped’ champion.

Chef Syrena Johnson is a champion. And not just because she was named the champion on an episode of The Food Network’s “Chopped” cooking show back in February or because she is competing again on “Chopped: Champs Throwdown”.

No, Johnson is a champion because she understands that a champion doesn’t just win, but reaches back to help others be victorious. That’s exactly what she tries to do, and why she’s showcasing those skills for her own city at Friendsgiving Nov. 10 at Treme Market Branch.

Johnson says she doesn’t remember exactly when she first started cooking, but she “was always in the kitchen in some shape, form or fashion.” Her mother, aunts and grandmothers influenced her and sparked a love of cooking.

“I just didn’t know it would lead to this opportunity — that I could make a living from it. I didn’t know it would take me this far,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, it was really earning the John Besh Chefs Move! scholarship in 2011 as its first recipient that catapulted her to be able to compete on a national stage. Her first job was at McDonald’s and then she moved on to fine dining and completed the Liberty’s Kitchen program in 2010. Once she received the scholarship, which covered tuition at the French Culinary Institute of New York, along with room and board, her entire life changed.

Even with her experience and training, Johnson wasn’t sure if she was ready for “Chopped.”

“All those doubts come out when you’re there. It’s more than just being able to cook. It’s being able to cook in that environment with cameras on you, all running behind you,” Johnson explained.

She said her experience on the show changed her perspective and helped her put away some self-doubt she had carried.

“It’s all a humbling experience,” Johnson said. “It’s an eye-opener, and it gave me confidence knowing that I can do it under tough conditions. There’s no hint of what the ingredients will be [on “Chopped”]. If you don’t know how to cook, you aren’t gonna’ survive on there.”

She almost talked herself out of applying and becoming a “Chopped” champion, but it was a mentor who helped push her to apply to become a contestant.

“We doubt ourselves. We question ourselves,” but for anyone who may think they could make it as a chef, Johnson says, “put in an application.”

She knows the very real power a mentor can have in an individual’s life, and Johnson wants to help other aspiring young New Orleans chefs like she once was erase the doubts, along with the very tangible obstacles that can stand in their way.

“I have an amazing story because I was awarded an amazing scholarship,” Johnson said, adding that not all talented young people will be provided such opportunities.”Nine out of 10 may not get that great opportunity. We have to pass the torch for those who aren’t being spoken up for.”

Catch Chef Syrena Johnson on “Chopped: Champs Throwdown: Battle 1” on The Food Network.