In the culinary world, chef Lauren Van Liew proved to be a champion, winning both the Chopped and Supermarket Stakeout competitions on the Food Network. A passion that began as a teenager. Cooking is all she knows.
Van Liew, once a restaurant owner, recently turned to the catering business to spend more time with her family. This decision seems to be paying off as it conquers both worlds – food and family. You can hear the passion in the New Jersey woman’s voice as she talks about her love for creating kitchen magic. Her success on the Food Network has helped strengthen her brand and it continues to grow.
Zenger News mistook it for the two-time champion to discuss the catering world, her intentions to compete in future competitions, her dish that was bombed at a family gathering, and more.
Percy Crawford interviewed Lauren Van Liew for Zenger News.
Chef Lauren Van Liew follows the KISS rule when cooking. (Zachary Ramos)
Zenger: How are you and how is the catering business doing during the pandemic?
Percy Crawford interviewed Lauren Van Liew for Zenger News. (Heidi Malone / Zenger)
Van Liew: I’m good and business is not bad. We just had to revise our model a little. Go back to the basics. When I started my business, I started preparing meals for families. Where we’re based in New Jersey there are lots of young families and the dinner delivery system has been really beneficial. That’s how I started and then this type of catering became because people were trying dinner on Thursday night and having a birthday party in two weeks and called me to make the food for it. This species helped develop into the catering business.
When COVID happened, I was making meals again for people at home and for families who didn’t like cooking or didn’t know how to cook. I really went to a lot of senior citizens’ buildings with residents aged 55+. A lot of these people here who were uncomfortable went to the stores so we made lunch and dinner and brought it to their doors. That’s how I stayed afloat in the middle of the COVID era.
Zenger: Do you remember the first time you realized that not only was you passionate about cooking and creating in the kitchen, but that you could make a career out of it?
Van Liew: That’s all I’ve done since I was 14. I started working in a bagel and I really enjoyed it. It was a breakfast spot on Saturday and Sunday and I loved watching the girl turn the eggs. I grew up in a family where food is everything. My mom and grandma always cook in the kitchen so I was always there. When I got my first job and saw that I could be paid to do something I liked, it was great. That’s how I started and have been in this business for almost 30 years.
Zenger: Many changes in food, taste and recipes over the course of 30 years. What are the noticeable changes that you have seen from the very beginning until today?
Van Liew: We almost went back. Now everything revolves around clean food, very environmentally conscious. You don’t need a million sauces and a million different condiments. People now like much simpler and cleaner food. People also care more about where the food is coming from and don’t enjoy cooking as much as they used to. It helps keep people like me in business.
Zenger: You mentioned the simplicity in terms of condiments and condiments, but I like your recipes because they are overall simple to a degree. Some recipes can be intimidating because one of the first two or three ingredients you’ve never heard of doesn’t know where to find it. They seem to stay away from it as much as possible.
Van Liew: Thank you. I really appreciate it. My dad always said, “Just keep it simple, stupid.”
Zenger: The “KISS” rule. I love it.
Van Liew: It is true, however. As long as it tastes good and I put a lot of love into it, that’s important.
Zenger: Being a chef is very creative and there are catering functions where there is an immediate response to a dish or event. Is that where your satisfaction comes from?
Van Liew: That sums it all up because this is my creative approach. Some people are painters or are involved in various activities; That is my immediate satisfaction. I put things in a pan that I think will go together, add some spices and then, right then and there, you see the joy people have in eating your food and being a part of you.
Zenger: You are a Chopped Food Network champion. How did winning this competition change or improve things for your career and business?
Van Liew: “Chopped” was great. I’m a small business in New Jersey and it’s pretty difficult to advertise because it gets very expensive. That’s why I started with free social media platforms. But when I won “Chopped” it gave me something to stand on and advertise. So it has helped me make my company name better known.
“Chopped” is such a well-known show that tests a chef’s skills. I had a great time on the show and obviously winning helped. It has helped me improve my game where I could post my name a bit more. I actually went back to the Food Network, to “Supermarket Stakeout”, which I also won. So being a two-time Food Network champion helps promote and engage people in your business.
Zenger: I understand how to test cooks in very chaotic conditions, but can you really do your best with time constraints and cooking with ingredients that you get to know minutes before the clock starts?
Van Liew: The show is as real as you see it. People say, “Oh, it’s TV.” But you really need to prepare mentally to think on your feet and do multiple tasks. I went in there with one rule: cook what I know and stick to my roots. If I’m not a pastry chef, I won’t try making ice cream because everyone fails when they try to make ice cream. Cook like you would at home, flavors you know and if you don’t know what something is mix it up with flavors you know and hopefully you can cover it up a little in case it’s something weird or you don’t. I’m not sure what to do with it.
Zenger: I wanted to ask you if there’s anything you’ve ever done that got bombed, and then I see your Instagram post about your buffalo chicken dip that wasn’t a hit. What happened?
Van Liew: (laughs) My family is a harsh critic, man. I do not know what happened. I tried another method of shredding the chicken. I always use ground chicken because I like that texture with it. I used a ranch dressing that came out of a bottle instead of making my blue cheese as usual and no one liked it. At the end of the night I threw it out. Everyone had a comment, don’t get me wrong. We’re not a shy family here. They were all ready to tell me the buffalo chicken dip wasn’t great.
Your children can be Lauren Van Liew’s toughest critics. (Zachary Ramos)
Zenger: The buffalo buns looked amazing and it seemed like you redeemed yourself.
Van Liew: Yes! The egg rolls were great.
Zenger: Their Cinco de Mayo nacho spread looked amazing too. How many people fed this and were there any left?
Van Liew: I love to celebrate anything and everything. That’s one of the reasons I got into this business. And Cinco de Mayo is a great reason to eat nachos and drink margaritas. I thought we’d cover the table and do the biggest exhibition of nachos. I made a big deal out of queso and a big deal out of chicken chili with all the toppings. My kids were so excited. We had a couple of people and made a huge table out of it. I figured I have to post this on social media because I think someone else would want me to come over and try. Oh my god, we had half a table left. Everyone took a dog bag home with them.
Zenger: Do you see common mistakes chefs make that are easy to fix?
Van Liew: I don’t know – I think everyone is their own. The reason I got into this business is because you really can’t screw up the cooking. It is your attitude and your twist on it. That’s why I don’t like baking and pastries; You have to be precise, measure and do everything right so that you can’t make mistakes there. But when you cook, you sometimes have to inspire it and join in.
Zenger: Of course, you can make some pretty complex meals, but you have kids, and sometimes kids, who just like it. What is your favorite food along these lines?
Van Liew: A good chicken schnitzel goes very far in my house. We sauté it, add parmesan and this kind is served in every way. We make sliders out of it, we cut it open with noodles, we eat them cold ourselves. My kids are really good eaters. I think that’s because mom is always cooking something different and there is always something on the table. And the rule here is, you just have to try. You don’t have to like it, but you have to try. And half the time they try and they end up like it. So it has expanded them to eat a wide variety of foods.
Zenger: Are you planning to attend shows in a more competitive format in the near future?
Van Liew: I love the competitive shows. I would like to do Beat Bobby Flay and Guy’s Grocery Games. I think both shows have the same feeling of where to think on your feet. I think it keeps your skills up to date and keeps you constantly competing and always one step ahead. Yes, I would love to do another show and I’m always on the lookout to see when they get cast.
Zenger: I appreciate your time; You are creating some fantastic dishes and I want to wish you continued success. Any farewell words?
Van Liew: Thank you very much. I would love if people would visit our website as well as my Instagram account, where I post a new video every day. We’re also trying to be trendy and start with TikTok.
(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)
‘Chopped’ champion Lauren Van Liew, thriving as a caterer, first appeared on Zenger News.