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 her first of two episodes for the “Casino Royale” cooking tournament on Food Network’s “Chopped.”
It was that ability to think quickly on her feet that helped Bliss win the tournament — and $40,000 — in the season finale that aired Tuesday night.
“No regrets in anything I’ve ever done in my career to get me to this point, because crazy, stressful situations are what gave me the ability to be a good critical thinker,” said Bliss, executive chef at Conversation in Seattle’s Thompson Hotel, Wednesday morning.
“I feel like that confidence just comes out when I’m in the kitchen. … The most nerve-wracking parts were everything in between, actually; the easiest, most confident parts for me were when the clock started and you go and just do what you [have to] do.”
In each episode, contestants had to prepare an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. At the start of each round, contestants were given several ingredients — including at least one stinker — along with 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,” Bliss said after her first episode of “Chopped” premiered in early January.
She went on to win that episode and returned to face the winners of three other episodes in Tuesday’s finale.
In both episodes, Bliss wound up working with ingredients she’d never cooked with before, including the rattlesnake, but she didn’t hesitate, and she rarely gambled on a different, potentially better ingredient.
“What are you going to do? They take away our phones so it’s not like we can sit there and research what it is. Google is gone at that point,” Bliss said. “It’s either going to work or you’re going to make an ass out of yourself on TV. Some of it worked for me, some of it did not.”
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 says. “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.
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, to film 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 says.
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.”
Bliss, who will create a meal as part of the Field to Table dining series at Lumen Field on Saturday, says she was surprised her dessert was her most successful creation in the finale.
“Before I went on the show, I would think I’d probably be the weakest on dessert, because typical savory chef here, right?” Bliss said. But she wound up creating improved versions of the desserts she made in both “Chopped” episodes (apple-ricotta doughnuts and dark-chocolate custard) and put them on the menu at Conversation, where they remain to this day.
“I actually got inspiration from thinking on the fly with both of the desserts I made on the show,” Bliss said. “I thought, well, damn, if it passed the ‘Chopped’ judges, maybe Seattle will like it.”