OC chef Paul Cao poses after winning the grand prize on 'Chopped'. (Image Courtesy of LA times)
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OC Chef Paul Cao wins ‘Chopped’: Locally-owned food businesses amidst the pandemic

Paul Cao, head chef and owner of Burnt Crumbs in Huntington Beach and Irvine, takes home the $10,000 prize in last month’s episode of the hit Food Network cooking show Chopped” 

His rewarding decision to enter “Chopped” was thanks to his publicist, Kat Nguyen. Cao flew out to New York City for the taping along with fellow business partners, Minh Pham. Going into it, his mentality was simply to get everything on the plate.

“I’ve seen so many people mess up because they forgot an item or forgot an ingredient, and they get chopped,” Paul told LA Times.

Representing Irvine and his business on National TV proved to be a challenge in itself.

“You feel like a rotisserie chicken at Costco. There are so many lights on you, and it’s hot. It’s a roller coaster of emotions and your adrenaline is through the roof,” Cao recalled to Irvine Standard.

Luckily, The sixth episode titled “Soup and Sandwich Savvy,” happened to play to his affinity, as Burnt Crumbs’ menu centers around gourmet handcrafted sandwiches. Cao easily won the judges over with a banh mi with duck broth jus, according to the OC Register

The last round was tough as well, but Cao was able to pull off a funnel cake ice cream sandwich, ultimately taking home the $10,000 prize money.

Originally, Cao had planned to use the prize money to bring his family on vacation. After all, one of his main motivations were his 4 and 5-year-old son waiting at home.

“I honestly did it for them because I wanted them to think daddy was cool being on TV,” he admitted in an interview with Orange Coast. 

However, COVID-19 quickly shattered those plans as he realized how much the pandemic would impact businesses.  

Burnt Crumbs’ was built from a humble food truck that aimed to share a modern and casual dining experience with families. Their menu features a wide variety of options, including the legendary fan-favorite Spaghetti-Grilled Cheese. Since then, they’ve expanded into two present-day locations as well as the spin-off union with DogZilla known as BurntZilla.

The restaurant was forced to close for a six-week period from late March until Mother’s day weekend in mid-May and has only been open from Thursday to Sunday since then.

Cao remarks that in the present situation “Everyone is just trying to stay alive,” according to the LA Times.

He wishes for better times ahead, especially for other small business owners who are currently struggling to stay afloat amidst the difficult circumstances. More than anything, Cao was glad that he had the opportunity to bring attention to the chefs in Orange County.

“There’s a lot of really good food out here. L.A. gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so, but there’s great food down here,” he told the Daily Pilot. 

The interview closes with his final wish to spread the following message: “Please continue to support local businesses and restaurants.” 

Due to the unprecedented economic disruption, 43% of businesses have temporarily closed, according to the PNAS. The duration of the pandemic threatens to send even more locally-owned restaurants out of commission, as owners scramble to figure out what to do next.

Cao is one chef who was fortunate enough to receive a lucky breakthrough in his victory on “Chopped.” However, others were not as successful.

To continue the legacy of amazing eats and celebrate their hard work, it is important to support small businesses whenever possible. Eat out whenever you can, and avoid large-chain owned restaurants.

Overall, it’s a win-win. You get some delicious food and you’re helping another business owner stay in operation during these trying times.