By Lindsey Sullivan | [email protected]
Chris Edwards, head chef of Alexandria restaurant Hank & Mitzi’s Italian Kitchen, competed to win in an episode of Food Network’s “Chopped” that aired on Sept. 29.
“Chopped” is a popular cooking show competition hosted by TV personality Ted Allen, where four chefs compete to win $10,000. Chefs face off in three rounds — appetizer, entrée and dessert. At the beginning of each round, the chefs are given a basket filled with “mystery ingredients” that they must use to create their dish. Their creations are then critiqued by a panel of judges.
The mystery ingredients in Edwards’ winning entrée were swordfish, long hot red peppers, graffiti eggplant and a gnocchi sandwich. Edwards impressed the judges by making a smoked paprika rubbed swordfish with charred eggplant and peppers in escabeche. He incorporated the gnocchi sandwich by using the gnocchi to make a potato cream.
“To be honest it was a little intimidating, you know, to cook for those judges because they’re all amazing chefs who know what they’re talking about,” Edwards said. “So the pressure wasn’t only from what you put on yourself or with the competition, but it was also like ‘Hey, I’m cooking for some of the best chefs in the country.’”
Edwards was selected to compete on the show after the “Chopped” team reached out to the public relations staff at Hank & Mitzi’s and spoke with restaurateur Jamie Leeds, Edwards’ business partner. It was Leeds who recommended Edwards for the show.
Edwards competed alongside another Alexandria chef — Mimi Huynh, the chef and owner of Sunday in Saigon, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Old Town.
In celebration of the win, Hank & Mitzi’s released a new lunch menu, featuring a reinvented version of the gnocchi sandwich — potato gnocchi stuffed bread with mozzarella and cotto ham served with Vincenzo (marinara) sauce – in honor of Edwards’ mystery ingredient. The new menu also features lunch portions of pasta dishes, pizzas and other sandwiches.
Originally from Woodbridge, Virginia, Edwards has more than 20 years of culinary experience and has worked for several different restaurants before creating Hank & Mitzi’s Italian Kitchen alongside Leeds in 2019.
Edwards said he had an interest in being a chef since he was a child. He got a job as a cook while in high school and later attended culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina while working his way through college in hotel kitchens and different restaurants in Charleston.
After spending time in Spain in the early 2000s, Edwards has incorporated what he learned from Spanish cuisine into his restaurant endeavors. He said on “Chopped” that he plans to use his prize money to visit Spain again.
Edwards has worked at several restaurants in Virginia, namely Patowmack Farm in Loudoun County where he earned his first chef position in 2008. He then moved to work at Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia, where he met Leeds. Together, they opened the Hank’s Oyster Bar location on the D.C. Wharf.
Edwards and Leeds created Hank & Mitzi’s Kitchen in late 2019. The restaurant is an expansion of Hank’s Pasta Bar, which served Alexandria for three years before closing in November 2019 for renovations.
After renovating the building to include an event space and outdoor patio, the reimagined restaurant Hank & Mitzi’s Italian Kitchen reopened in August 2020 – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The restaurant implemented several protocols to keep customers and staff safe, including mask wearing and an online menu available via QR code. Edwards said he and his team have tried to not only follow best health practices at the restaurant, but to also advertise what the restaurant is doing to keep customers safe.
“We’re grateful to have the support of this neighborhood,” Edwards said. “We’re thrilled to be here — we’re having fun, we’re cooking good food, providing good hospitality, and you know, we’re keeping jobs for people. It’s just not about making money right now. It’s a lot about survival and the key to that is having a good team.”
Massimo Giannetti, general manager of Hank & Mitzi’s, said he has seen first-hand all of the support Alexandrians have given the restaurant, including their celebration of Edwards’ “Chopped” victory.
“Especially during these times that we are living with COVID, something positive like this, it was very needed,” Giannetti said. “It was something positive that impacted the restaurant big time and also chef [Edwards] on a personal level, giving him some sort of confidence and energy to carry on even during the pandemic.”
Giannetti and Edwards both said that many come to congratulate them on the “Chopped” win or to try the gnocchi sandwich.
“It has been really good for us and it’s nice to be recognized, it’s nice to know that people are proud of you and proud that you’re in their community and that they take the time to say it,” Edwards said.