CONWAY — Daniel Rassi says he is blessed. The local chef says he’s doing what he loves (cooking), with people that he loves (his family).
His and his partners’ very first venture, Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers which opened in North Conway in 2017, was a hit right out of the gate. He has four wonderful kids, a great wife and a nice home in Fryeburg, Maine.
But Rassi has also been dealt challenges in his 37 years. Like when the former Everett (Mass.) High School football standout had to have back surgery, then got hooked on painkillers, then (with the help of God and his wife, Angelys, he says) got off them.
Or when he and his Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers partners had just opened their new fast-casual pizza/salad/wings place, Fire by Wicked Fresh, in the former Brandli’s space at Settlers Green (2 Common Court, Unit A-28) last spring, only to be sidelined by the state’s COVID-19 shutdown. (It has reopened, but changes are afoot to take it up to the next level, Rassi said this week. See below ...)
But this summer, Rassi found himself facing a challenge like nothing he’d faced before: competing on the Food Network reality show “Chopped.”
“It’s my favorite show of all time,” Rassi told an audience of fellow business owners at the Chamber After Hours event he catered at Settlers Green on Tuesday. But while competing with talented chefs from all over the world, he confessed, “I was running around like a crazy man.”
If you’re not familiar with the show, it involves giving four professional chefs baskets of mystery ingredients and a time limit to cook three dishes that are then presented to a panel of judges (also professional chefs). One by one, the competitors are “chopped” until only one man or woman is left standing.
On most “Chopped” episodes, the winner takes home $10,000. But in the case of tournaments such as the one Rassi competed in, the Chopped Comfort Food Feud, the prize is the chance to compete for $25,000.
High stakes indeed. So when an email popped up one day in June in Rassi’s inbox, saying it was from a Food Network casting agent and asking if he’d like to be on “Chopped,” his reply was, “Yeah, right.”
He certainly wished it wasn’t a joke. “Chopped,” he said, is not only one of his favorite shows, it’s one he watches regularly with his daughter, Isabella, 9. (His other kids are Amelia, 3; Lucas, 5; and Angel, 19.)
The email turned out not to be a joke. And in August, Rassi found himself in a forest in Maine competing on the “Burger” segment (the other three segments of the Comfort Food Feud are “Bacon,” “Pizza” and “Macaroni and Cheese.”
Due to the pandemic, however, unlike the “Chopped” shows he’d watched in the past, which were shot in a studio in New York City, the Comfort Food Duel took place in a forest in Maine.
Even though they were outside the whole time, Rassi was impressed by the safety protocols. “On set, we wore masks, right up until the moment they started shooting. The producers made us feel very safe. It was like a wall of protection,” he said.
Unfortunately, due to the network’s rules and regulations, Rassi couldn’t say who his fellow chefs were, except to say that they were from across the Northeast — New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania (one woman and three men) and most crucially, he can’t say whether he won or not.
But viewers won’t have to wait long to find out.
The “Burgers” episode Rassi competed on is scheduled to air Tuesday, Nov. 17.
The description for the show says: “In a burger-themed battle of the $25,000 Comfort Food Feud, the chefs get a deep-fried surprise and a sloppy classic in round one. In the entrée round, they must figure out what to do with a bizarre canned product.” And for dessert? “Sweet creations made with mustard ice cream.” Yum!
Rassi said he was pretty much in awe the whole time. When host Ted Allen started speaking to them at the beginning of the show, he said, “I mean, there’s Ted Allen, that voice. To say I felt star-struck is an understatement. I believe the term they use now is ‘fan-boying,’”
He said he also got to talk to one of the woman judges, who invited him to stop by her restaurant sometime and say hello. “Oh my God,” Rassi recalled thinking. “Is this really happening?”
(If the “Bacon” episode, which debuted on the Food Network on Tuesday on Spectrum channels 57 and 162, is any indication, Rassi’s judges were chef/restaurateurs Chris Santos, Maneet Chauhan and Tiffani Faison.)
Besides shooting outside, other changes included not allowing the competitors to sit around a table and talk about the last round. “Instead, we shot selfies and talked straight to the camera,” Rassi said.
The question of how the Food Network came to invite Rassi onto the show is one he hasn’t completely figured out.
“I mean, a few years ago my sister, Kathy Iannuzzi, won ‘Cupcake Wars,’ which is also on Food Network, but I asked around, and they said, no, that had nothing to do with it.”
Yes, the White Mountain Cupcakery, which moved from North Conway Village to Settlers Green last year, did win “Cupcake Wars,” another Food Network competition show,.
And that win is what actually brought Rassi from Florida to the valley.
But Rassi believes the more probable cause for getting picked for “Chopped” is all the social media he started doing to drum up business and exposure during the long months of the pandemic. He hired DriveBrand Studios, a public relations firm in North Conway, and did a lot of promotional videos with the help of Isabella Burnham.
After he confirmed his interest, several rounds of Zoom interviews with “Chopped” producers ensued. Talking with him recently, it became easy to see why he passed the audition. To use a word that isn’t very popular right now, Rassi’s enthusiasm for food and cooking is infectious.
The audition “was a lengthy process,” Rassi said. “But we finally got notice that filming would take place in late August.”
Naturally, that was at both Fire’s and Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers’ busiest time of year, after tourism rebounded when Gov. Chris Sununu opened retail and restaurants back up.
But he says, “My staff is awesome. Without them, I never could have done it.”
With months to prepare, Rassi says he practiced for the competition, creating burgers with whatever wacky ingredients his friends and family could come up with while the clock ticked down.
“I had a couple of chefs helping me here,” he says. They included Dan Curry, the new general manager of Wicked Fresh, and Chef Gary Sheldon, president of the White Mountain Chapter of the American Culinary Federation and a legend in the valley, whose daughter, Jamie Sheldon, is a manager at Fire.
And of course, other big influence are his parents, Iraida and Rafael Rassi, whose Puerto Rican heritage comes out in Rassi’s cooking, combined with the fine-dining influences of the aforementioned chefs and his brother-in-law’s Italian background.
“I’m not a classically trained chef, but my cooking, without a doubt is the culmination of all the teachers who taught me,” Rassi says.
Those teacher/mentors include Teresa Stearns, chef/owner of the renowned White Mountain Cider Co. restaurant in Glen; Clem and Shirley McAuliffe at the Vista Country Store in Intervale; and Chef Robert Krebs, food and beverage director at ChampionsGate Golf Club near Disney World in Orlando.
Working at ChampionsGate was his “culinary awakening,” Rassi says. “I started out as an entry-level prep cook, and within a month, I was cooking on the line.”
He picked up management tips along the way. “I learned how to treat people — not just the customers, that’s a given, but the vendors, your co-workers, your bosses ...”
He consider his restaurant staff and co-workers as a second family. “You put in so many hours in the restaurant, there are times you don’t get to see your family.”
In fact, he said when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the restaurant, the first thing he did with his PPP (Payroll Protection Program) funds was, “I paid our employees, then I paid our vendors.”
OVP Management, which owns Settlers Green, “was really great with the rent. They really helped us out by not pressuring us about it. They knew we’d come back, and we did.”
Of the shutdown, he said, “I hate to say it, but it came at the best time it possibly could. People were cooped up for months, and everything opened back up, it was crazy.”
Crazy good (they were busy again!) and crazy bad, sometimes.
“We were on a learning curve. Suddenly we had to take orders online. People would get upset when the tickets were piling up. We had a few unruly customers. My staff was under a lot of pressure those first few months.”
Grace under pressure. Coming up with innovative dishes. If that sounds like “Chopped” is right in his wheelhouse, that’s because it is.
Plus, his mentors had his back. “Chef Sheldon gave me some great advice,” Rassi recalled. “Keep a clean station, keep it simple.”
Sister Kathy advised: “Don’t go out of your lane, do what you do best.”
But when it was crunch time, Rassi says he hewed to advice he often gives his kids: “You get what you get, you don’t get upset.”
He also realized he needed to remain focused. “Keep your head down, don’t focus on the other chefs, don’t focus on the clock, just focus on what you’ve gotta do,” he told himself.
Ultimately, he says, “I feel like I represented burger-themed dishes well.”
Burgers are obviously a passion for him. He and wife Angelys, sister Kathy and brother-in-law Marc Iannuzzi opened Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers next to HomeGoods at 19 Barnes Road in April 2017, and it was a hit right out of the gate, due in no small way to the innovative combinations of burgers and toppings.
“I’m feel very blessed and humbled by the success of Wicked Fresh,” Rassi says. “There are so many good places to eat in town. But the town needed a funky cool burger shop, and we delivered.”
Asked how he comes up with new ones, Rassi says, “Honestly, I just listen to others — staffers at the restaurant, customers, anybody. And I think about what I like and how I can present it.”
Such ruminations have led to the Hangry (Cajun smashed burger, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickled jalapeño and special Cajun sauce), the BBQ Burger (cheddar cheese, house-made slaw, pickles, bacon and housemade honey barbecue sauce) and the BYO — Build Your Own Burger.
Marc is no slouch in the kitchen either, starting out at the Silver Fox in Everett at age 14, and working his way up.
The pair, as the website wickedfreshburgers.com notes, “went on to work in Florida where Marc became an executive chef and Danny a sous chef.”
Speaking of Wicked Fresh, Rassi had big news to share concerning his two empires — Fire pizza and wings and Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers. They are about to be joined.
“We are planning to open Wicked Fresh 2.0 at Fire,” he says, with the flagship store being converted to takeout-only in the winter months.
During the summer, he says, “the town was really great about allowing us to expand with tables out on the sidewalk.” But when the cold reality of winter sets in, he knows that won’t be possible.
“At Fire, we have plenty of room for social distancing in our dining room,” Rassi said. “In addition to our amazing pizza (try the fig, prosciutto and balsamic drizzle, you won’t believe it) and outrageous wings — and beer, wine and mixed cocktails — we’ll start by integrating our most popular burgers and eventually bring in the whole Wicked Fresh lineup,” including gluten-free options, he said.
It’s all available on their heated, outdoor patio, for indoor dining, or for takeout.
And those burgers Rassi innovated during those fast rounds on “Chopped”? There’s bound to be a place on the new menu for those. As they say on TV, stay tuned ...