Not even the prospect of cooking with rattlesnake was enough to goad Seattle chef Kaleena Bliss into taking a gamble on a more familiar ingredient in the “Casino Royale” cooking tournament on Food Network’s “Chopped.”
In the premiere episode that aired in early January, contestants had the option to roll the dice: An even number gave them a more useful ingredient; an odd number might be something worse.
“At least they gave [the rattlesnake] to us in a can and we didn’t have to fabricate it,” said Bliss, executive chef at Conversation in Seattle’s Thompson Hotel, in an interview after her first episode of “Chopped” aired.
Of the three dishes Bliss prepared in that episode, her orecchiette pasta, featuring smoked rattlesnake and purple spinach pesto with a pickle-flavored potato-chip breadcrumb, proved her most successful creation.
“The judges didn’t actually have anything bad to say about it and I felt really confident after that,” Bliss said.
She went on to win that episode and returns to face the winners of three other qualifier episodes in the tournament finale, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1. The winner will take home a minimum $25,000 jackpot.
Growing up in Vancouver, Washington, Bliss often watched PBS and Food Network cooking shows, particularly “Iron Chef,” with her parents.
“I don’t know why but I always knew that I was going to be a chef,” she said. “I remember in high school when everyone around me is, like, ‘What am I going to go to college for?’ And I’m, like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to culinary school.’ ”
Bliss got a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, majoring in culinary arts management, and returned to the Pacific Northwest to work in Portland before making her way up to the Puget Sound region, including a stint as sous chef at the now-shuttered Four Swallows on Bainbridge Island.
Bliss, 34, joined the kitchen at Conversation in the Thompson in November 2019.
“I feel like my cooking is really based on my inspirations from growing up in the Northwest,” she said. “We’re so lucky to have the forest and the mountains and the sound nearby. We have an arsenal of ingredients to choose from. … When I was younger I was really interested in traditional French cuisine, cooking everything with butter, but as I get older, I like finding ways to incorporate interesting flavors without it being super-heavy.”
Bliss posts images of her culinary creations to her Instagram page and, as is often the case these days with reality TV competition shows, that’s how a representative from “Chopped” found and recruited Bliss to the program.
“When I first heard it, I was, like, ‘Oh, this is a scam,’ but I was interested because I’d seen the show and it’s one that’s actually respected within our industry,” Bliss says. “It’s actually based on your talent and not just kind of making you entertainable [for viewers watching the show].”
Bliss says her Thompson bosses were supportive even though the “Chopped” opportunity came just as the hotel was preparing to reopen Conversation after a 19-month pandemic closure. In October 2021, “Chopped” flew Bliss to Knoxville, Tennessee, for her shot at the title.
She said taping her first episode occurred over the course of a 16-hour day.
“If I look a little crazy doing the interview [segments], it’s because those were all done at the end of the day,” she said.
In that first episode of “Chopped,” Bliss talks a bit about anxiety, which she says probably held her back from pursuing any TV cooking competition appearances in her 20s.
“In this day and age, there [are] a lot of people talking about that, especially people in our industry and especially chefs,” Bliss says. “I don’t feel like it’s so on-the-hush anymore. As I’ve gotten older, and especially going through the COVID pandemic, I started addressing it with my doctors. … I think that gave me confidence to take the leap and do something like this.”
Even so, “Chopped” proved to be the most nerve-wracking and stressful cooking experience thus far in Bliss’ life.
“It was a great experience,” she said, “but did I feel sick the entire time? Yes, I did.”
Of course, Bliss, who will create a meal as part of the Field to Table dining series at Lumen Field on Feb. 5, is sworn to secrecy on how she fared in the “Casino Royale” finale, which she filmed a few days after her first “Chopped” episode.
“What I will say is that winning the first episode gave me confidence that I could do this,” she said, “but I still had the same amount of nerves and stress filming the second one.”