Since graduating from Brookdale’s Culinary Education Center (CEC) in Asbury Park in 2016, Neptune native Joshua Wiggins has been carving out a name for himself in the culinary world.
After honing his fine dining skills with the Sheraton Hotel in Eatontown and Scarborough Fair in Sea Girt, Wiggins was recruited by fellow CEC alum Wendy Escobedo to sign on as sous chef for the famed Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchen in Red Bank. Together, the pair crafts and prepares an eclectic, farm-to-table menu while carrying out the Soul Kitchen’s mission of providing food, training and other support for community members in need.
Last year, the pair expanded their collaboration by launching Chefs Prep LLC, a healthy, high-quality meal prep service serving customers in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Shortly thereafter, Wiggins received one of the most important phone calls of his young career.
“The Food Network was interviewing candidates for ‘Chopped,’ and they wanted to meet with me,” said Wiggins, referring to the network’s popular cooking competition show that requires chefs to prepare meals using “mystery ingredients” revealed just prior to cooking. “I did an on-camera interview with them and, a little while later, they told me I would be appearing on the show. It was surreal.”
Wiggins competed alongside three other professional chefs in a “healthy eats” themed episode, working with mystery ingredients such as wild salmon fillets, cottage cheese, zucchini noodles and vegan bacon.
“The vegan bacon looked like cardboard, and it didn’t cook the way you think bacon would,” said Wiggins. “It was a curveball for sure.”
While Wiggins would unfortunately be “chopped” prior to the final round, the young chef said said he relished the opportunity to test himself under the bright lights of national television.
“I love to challenge myself,” he said. “Back in the CEC, Wendy and I actually competed together in the Skills USA competition. We won first place in the state and competed in the nationals, so I’m no stranger to competition. For me, ‘Chopped’ was another opportunity to try, another challenge to overcome. It was definitely an amazing experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I left there smiling.”
Wiggins is not the first Brookdale culinary student to appear on The Food Network. CEC alum and New York-based chef Emily Chapman has appeared on “Chopped” four times since 2015, defeating 11 professional chefs and celebrity chef Robert Irvine to set the program’s all-time record for consecutive wins while earning $50,000 in total prize money.
Alumnus Andrew Araneo, a James Beard Award finalist and chef of the critically acclaimed Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport, beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a voodoo shrimp “throwdown” in 2013. CEC graduate Matt Levine, chef for Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, took second place on the Food Network program “Rewrapped” in 2014.
Wiggins, who earned both a culinary arts degree and a pastry arts degree from the CEC, said he is not surprised to see his fellow alumni perform so well on the national stage.
“It’s the teachers,” said Wiggins. “The CEC instructors have so much knowledge and experience, and they genuinely care about their students. They really know how to really hone in and harness your potential, while passing along everything they know. Even after graduation, they are always pushing me to keep going and achieve more.”
The CEC, a collaboration between Brookdale and the Monmouth County Vocational School District, offers a variety of degree and certificate programs along with professional-grade kitchens, a working bakery and a full-service dining room. For more information click here.
Wiggins’ episode of “Chopped” will re-air throughout the coming weeks. Check local listings for details.
[Feature photo: Brookdale Culinary Education Center graduates Joshua Wiggins (left) and Wendy Escobedo stand together for a photo. Courtesy of Chefs Prep LLC]