David Lauderdale

‘Chopped’ winner from Beaufort shares life’s key ingredient

JR Tiger on the Food Network show “Chopped: Truck Stop Stars” with a basket full of “mystery ingredients” he used to win the competition and $10,000.
JR Tiger on the Food Network show “Chopped: Truck Stop Stars” with a basket full of “mystery ingredients” he used to win the competition and $10,000. Food Network

He grew up like a lot of kids in Beaufort — in a tight ship run by a Marine.

Then JR Tiger’s life took on a lot of unusual ingredients.

Follow your passion.

JR Tiger

There was that time he was a professional wrestler known in the ring as the Russian Assassin.

But then came this icing on the cake. This spring, Tiger landed in the national spotlight as a “Truck Stop Star” on the Food Network’s popular show “Chopped” starring Ted Allen.

He won the cooking competition and $10,000.

“It’s a validation for what I decided to do in life,” he said.

“Follow your passion.”

After graduating from Battery Creek High School, Tiger sold cars, financed cars, tended bar, did some catering, and cooked in restaurants in Shell Point, St. Helena Island, Alaska — and the Travel Centers of America truck stop near Carlisle, Pa., where he still lives.

The cooking started early. He was home from school, probably about 10, suspended for “being a knucklehead,” and his mother, whose leg was broken, said she’d like some pancakes. It was his first win in the kitchen. He cooked them in a cast-iron skillet. His mother, Pat, praised him, and that was a warm feeling that would keep pulling him back into the kitchen.

Later, Tiger was known as Beaufort’s cheesecake king.

And when he was bartending at JP’s Place in Shell Point, the late Vito Picaro, who owned the place, told him he needed to be in the kitchen, not the bar. Later he ran the kitchen for Maria Jackson at Bella Luna Cafe on St. Helena.

“I learned a lot from her,” Tiger said. “That reignited my passion for cooking.”

If you want to speed up, you got to slow down.

JR Tiger

He never went to culinary school. But when he watched “Chopped” — where four chefs face off in producing a three-course meal using surprise ingredients and one chef gets “chopped” after each course — he’d say to his wife, “I can do that.”

Melissa Tiger finally said something along the lines of “put up or shut up,” and last October, Tiger drove his four-wheel-drive Ford Ranger pickup with oversized mud tires to New York City to tape a show that was first aired in March.

He was out of place and credits his buddy from Beaufort, Tony Priest, for coming up to help keep him in the road.

“I found out turn signals don’t mean anything,” Tiger said.

“If New York City cab drivers ever decide to go into NASCAR, the Southern boys will never win again.”

Tiger, a shiny bald 52, was the old man staring across the Food Network set at judges who could chop his dreams on a whim. He had to beat a chef from one of America’s oldest truck stops — Dixie Truck Stop on Route 66 in McLean, Ill. — and the “world’s largest truck stop,” Iowa 80 in Walcott, Iowa.

“I tried to remain calm,” Tiger said. “I always say in the kitchen when we’re slammed, ‘If you want to speed up, you got to slow down.’ 

If there’s something you really like to do, there’s a good chance you can make a living at it.

JR Tiger

He had to create an appetizer using red-eye gravy, fennel, black garlic and meatloaf mix.

For the main course, he had to use grits, cola drink, cube steak and purple cauliflower. With those grits, he had been hurled like Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch. They should have stopped the thing with a mercy rule when the Southern boy deep fried pancetta and grated it over his grits.

He won in the dessert round with cream puffs filled with apple pie-flavored cream and topped with a cactus pear glaze with bacon in it.

Tiger says the secret ingredient in the kitchen is to “be creative and go for broke.”

Experiment with things you like. “If it sounds weird, try it. It can’t be meat and potatoes every day.”

He’s made cheesecakes with lobster. He made a margarita cheesecake with salted rim.

Think fusion. Do Italian with a Southern flair, or Mediterranean with an Asian influence.

He likes to mix fruit with protein and use local ingredients.

And then there’s this:

“If there’s something you really like to do,” Tiger said, “there’s a good chance you can make a living at it.”

Watch it

Upcoming airings of “Chopped: Truck Stop Stars” on the Food Network:

  • Aug. 11: 9 p.m.
  • Aug. 12: Midnight
  • Aug. 20: 3 p.m.

Source: Food Network