HEALTH: Local chef looks for next challenge on ‘Chopped’

When Ype Von Hengst showed up at the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2008, the then-58-year-old wondered what he had gotten himself into: Before the 26-mile race, the longest distance he ever ran was five miles.

But three missing toenails, six hours and 16 minutes later, Von Hengst crossed the finish line.

Three weeks ago he tested himself again, this time competing in the Tough Mudder challenge, a rigorous nine-mile course designed by British Special Forces. Von Hengst, now 61, admitted that he had not trained for the event, which has competitors dodging fire and electrical lines. Only 78 percent of participants typically finish the course.

So the executive chef of the Silver Diner says he knows he’s ready for his next challenge — television.

Von Hengst recently auditioned for “Chopped,” a cooking competition show on the Food Network. Four chefs are judged on their ability to take everyday food items and turn them into a three-course meal.

The competition seems like an appropriate fit for Von Hengst, who has spent the last five years turning diner food into healthy delicacies. More than five years ago, he, along with Silver Diner co-founder Robert Giaimo, rid the menu of trans-fats, cut portion sizes and introduced food from local farms.

Von Hengst, who weight-trains regularly, has an almost evangelical attitude toward local food and healthy living. He is devoted to providing his customers — particularly kids — with options that are both nutritious and satisfying, and he wants others to do the same.

So a few months ago, he decided to apply for a variety of popular cooking shows, including “Chopped,” to put pressure on restaurants to provide healthier choices.

“I would really like to expose more people to the fact that, you know, ‘Hey, this is a guy from a diner,’” said Von Hengst. “And it doesn’t have to be really old-fashioned diner food. It doesn’t have to be diner food. It can be healthy food, innovative food.”

While the diner still serves American favorites like burgers and milkshakes, the restaurant also offers options that defy diner fare, serving up dishes like made-to-order bruschetta with goat cheese. The ingredients are locally grown and raised, with its cheese from FireFly Farms in Bittinger, tomatoes from Hummingbird Farms in Ridgely, and bread from Uptown Bakers in Hyattsville.

“If I can get tomatoes from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia right around here in this local area, then why should I buy them from anywhere else?” said Von Hengst.

But the shift to locally sourced food has had its challenges. It’s more expensive to buy from small farmers; without preservatives, food has a shorter shelf life, Von Hengst said.

“Our guys in the kitchen, they had to learn first how to handle the food, you know, to refrigerate it faster, and you know, order it every day rather than two times a week.”

Von Hengst expects to hear back from the Food Network within the next few weeks to see if he made the cut. But he says he’s not worried.

“Your producer doesn’t know that I’m already picked and I’m already chosen, you might as well give me the $10,000 check, because I’m winning it anyway,” he told show representatives.

by Emily Hooper, Capital News Service