Ari Feingold, as seen on a recent episode of "Guy's Grocery Games." (Photo/Courtesy Food Network)
Ari Feingold, as seen on a recent episode of "Guy's Grocery Games." (Photo/Courtesy Food Network)

Local chef wins TV cooking contest, donates prize to North Bay fire relief

A $20,000 prize is going to fire relief efforts in Northern California thanks to a local chef’s win on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” a competition broadcast on the Food Network.

Ari Feingold, a partner and executive chef for Straw, a carnival-themed restaurant in San Francisco, and Proposition Chicken, a fried chicken restaurant in San Francisco and Oakland, appeared on “Guy’s Grocery Games” in October. The episode aired Jan. 17.

Before he was chosen to be a contestant, Feingold was shopping Santa Rosa one day. “I was talking to the shopkeepers about how the devastation of the [North Bay] fires affected the entire community,” he said. He saw being on the show as a fundraising opportunity to help fire victims. “I knew going in that if I won, there was no other option.”

Feingold’s restaurants already donate a percentage of each Monday’s proceeds to a local nonprofit, and he estimates they have given away over $100,000 by now.

On “Guy’s Grocery Games,” contestants “shop” for their ingredients on a set that looks like a grocery store. Time is limited, and the host always throws in twists to make things more challenging.

Feingold’s winning dish was the fried chicken recipe from Proposition Chicken (he adds a dash of vodka in the batter to make the crust extra crispy) on top of Israeli salad with a tahini lemon dressing. On the show, he added jalapeños, pepperoncini and mint to the salad to give it extra flavor.

While a typical episode starts with four chefs competing in three rounds, with one person eliminated each round until a winner is declared, the judges decided to eliminate two chefs after the first round.

The opening challenge was to make a “far-out fried food,” and partway through, host Guy Fieri threw in a wild card — contestants had to use a “red-light special” of baby bananas in their dish. Luckily, Feingold had already decided to make deep-fried French toast, and the bananas fit perfectly.

The other three contestants were not so lucky; one was making a seafood platter.

Riffing on the “Elvis sandwich,” said to be the singer’s favorite midnight snack of bananas, peanut butter and bacon, Feingold deep-fried some bacon, added maple-flavored whipped cream (instead of regular maple syrup), and topped the whole dish with a crumble of chocolate peanut butter cups.

While the judges commended him for his creativity and plating, Feingold realized that he put his bread in the oil too early; it wasn’t yet at temperature, and it soaked up too much oil. He tried putting it into the oven before serving it, but one judge said it was “super greasy.”

Nevertheless, with two contestants making even bigger errors in the judges’ estimation, Feingold and the other remaining chef went straight to the finals. For this challenge, they were to make their best fried dish and had to collect their items from the store in a kiddie-size shopping cart.

In a voiceover during the competition, Feingold said he was raised by a single mother, and it was up to him to feed himself and his younger brother.

Originally from Philadelphia, Feingold later told J., “I’m Israeli, and from ages 12 to 14 I was making food that was Israeli, but with a fun kid-like kind of twist, and while I didn’t use vodka or jalapeños back then, I often made schnitzel and put it on top of Israeli salad.”

He added, “There’s always some Israeli or Jewish sort of thing going on with the menus in my restaurants, together with this nostalgic, fun Neverland childhood thing. That’s how I cook and what inspires me and how I build my menus.”

While the judges were uneven in their praise of the chicken dish, they all agreed it was the best fry of the day. One judge called it “drop dead good,” another said “it had an elegant crust, crunchy and crispy and light,” while another was more impressed with the salad.

When Feingold was told he won and said he would donate the prize money, Fieri said, “Get out, I have goose bumps.”

In an unprecedented move, Fieri then had the judges go against each other in a special round and make their best fried version of either a hamburger or lasagna; $5,000 would go to the charity of the winner’s choice. Judge Beau McMillan’s deep-fried burger was declared the winner, and he said the judges had made a pact to give away the money to the local fire fund as well. That brought the total amount donated to $20,000.

As he exited the set, Feingold said, “This is a remarkable memory. I’ll take this feeling with me for the rest of my life.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."