Caulden Jackson, a Johnson & Wales student and sous chef at the Early Bird in Westminster, braved a barrage of Halloween-themed challenges to take the top spot on Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen. The Texas-born father of two did everything from bob for eggs to cook cricket stew on a shovel, yet he still managed to beat out three other challengers and join fellow Coloradan Dakota Soifer in the Cutthroat Kitchen hall of fame. In advance of the episode airing this weekend on the Food Network -- at 8 p.m. October 25 and 11 p.m. October 26 -- Westword spoke with Jackson about how he overcame his nerves and clinched the cash prize. See also: Food Network to Hold Open Casting Call for Food Network Star in Denver
"I'm going to win Cutthroat Kitchen, because if I can raise two-year-old twins by myself, then I can do anything," Jackson said as he walked into the show kitchen in the fifth-season episode "SaBOOtage" -- which was the show's very first Halloween episode. Jackson, who runs the blog Modern Cuisinist, drew on his kitchen experience and life experience to overcome some spectacularly god-awful sabotages.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Cutthroat Kitchen, hosted by Alton Brown, is a conventional cooking competition with a twist: Contestants can buy 'sabotages' to vex their opponents and mess with their heads. And so in the first round, Jackson was forced to cook his entire dish -- deviled eggs with salted foam and a crispy bacon garnish -- inside a coffin worthy of Bela Lugosi. But he passed the challenge and got props from the judge for his skills.
"I wasn't nervous until the middle of it," Jackson told us. "Round two, round three were the worst, because that's when my nerves started kicking in. I thought I was gonna vomit all over the kitchen floor on camera." But Jackson was able to stay cool and make a stew with crickets and a cow heart, while his opponents fumbled with such indignities as a hook and eye-patch combo and stiff 'zombie arms.' "Just to see the judge's reaction when he opened up my stew and saw a cricket inside, it's so funny," Jackson laughs.
Unlike Soifer, Jackson wasn't afraid to be ruthless in his race for the prize. When Brown challenged him and finalist chef Skylar to make a devil's food cake, Jackson stole all the eggs out of the pantry to stymie his opponent. "She was really pissed about it: 'This asshole took all the eggs!' I was like, 'Well, this is Cutthroat Kitchen. We play dirty around here.'" Jackson recounts.
Then he had to cook his dessert over a Bacardi 151-fueled open flame (dubbed "The Hellflame"). "My first attempt ended in disaster, it caught on fire. Now half the time is gone and I have to figure something out on the fly," he says. But Jackson triumphed with his layered devil's food dessert.
Next came the mandatory victory dance, the likes of which have rarely been seen on Cutthroat Kitchen. "They only show you a little bit of it, but there was a lot more to it. I think the highlight was the power slide," Jackson says. "It was the first time anyone did the power slide on their show."
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Jackson won $16,000, and "the next thing that came into my mind was, 'How do I turn this money into more money?'" Jackson remembers. 'Because it's awesome, but $16,000 wasn't even going to touch the girls' college fund. It's not even going to touch the college debt I have... That's what I've been working on, ways to turn it into something bigger, in order to not waste the chance that I got."