Welcome to the new Pop Shop A Go Go
A chef without a kitchen is like a fish out of water, says Nonna-Marie Riekert.
Riekert has been there, most recently while waiting for The Pop Shop’s new food truck to hit the road.
Founding chef of the popular retro-diner when it opened in Collingswood in 2004, Riekert recently returned to the fold to serve as chef of Pop Shop A-Go-Go, which was commissioned into service last fall.
While waiting, Riekert got an intriguing offer from Pop Shop co-owner Connie Correia.
How would she feel about competing on “Chopped?’’
Riekert accepted the challenge. Want to find out how she fared? Tune in at 10 p.m. Tuesday to the Food Network.
The Collingswood resident gives her all to a diner-themed episode, titled “Blue Plate Fate.’’
With three other “modern diner chefs,’’ Riekert was tasked with transforming the contents of the infamous “Chopped’’ basket of ingredients into blue plate specials worthy of the $10,000 grand prize.
The show, hosted by Ted Allen, was judged by Amanda Freitag, Marc Murphy and Chris Santos.
“In the appetizer round, the chefs must sling out dishes using some late-night food and a classic three-ingredient sandwich,’’ according to promotions for the show. “Then, the chefs get creative with a deep-fried snack in the entrée round. Some diner staples in the dessert basket are tasty on their own, but can the final two chefs succeed in reinventing them?’’
While Riekert can’t spill the beans on how far she got, she is happy to grab a stool at the soda fountain of The Pop Shop on Monday afternoon to reflect upon the experience.
The bright and bustling restaurant is a second home to Riekert.
“I wrote the recipes, I set up the kitchen,’’ she recalls, as servers scoop ice cream and blend milkshakes, and plates of fries and burgers come regularly out of the busy kitchen..
“I loved it, but after two years, I had the typical chef meltdown,’’ she confides.
"I needed to retrain both my dog and my wife (about living with a chef),’’ she jokes. “I was working a lot, and we wanted kids. I really wanted a 9-to-5’er.’’
So, Riekert took a job as chef production manager for Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where she was charged with transitioning the dietary offerings from a hospital menu to a dining menu.
“It was nice,’’ she observes. “I helped write the menu, and all the recipes. It was good to learn about feeding a whole bunch of people with different needs.’’
It was the right place to be while starting a family, she says, but “I realized I wasn’t cooking the food I wanted to cook, so I came back. It’s like coming home. It’s nice.’’
To both the Pop Shop food truck and to reality television, Riekert brings some serious chops of her own. In addition to helping the popular retro diner get established and grow – a second location is now in Medford – her resume includes stints working with chefs Jack McDavid (Jack’s Firehouse) and Kevin von Klause (Philly’s White Dog Café).
The Pop Shop has been featured on TV before – most notably in a grilled cheese “Smack Down with Bobby Flay’’ – and Correia has been pitching the network as the perfect spot for “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.’’
That offer still stands.
When Correia got the invite to send a chef to try out for “Chopped,’’ she knew Riekert would be the right fit.
“It was so exciting and so unexpected! This is totally not my thing,’’ Riekert says, “but I was idle while waiting for the truck. I needed the challenge. I watch the show, so I knew the deal, but I didn’t know how involved it was.’’
Just getting to New York City was a challenge for Riekert, who declares herself hopeless with directions. Thankfully, her mother-in-law got her there in time and supported her throughout the day.
Competitors are asked to turn in their wallets and their phones, increasing the sense of isolation.
“It’s all done in one day, but it’s all day. It was surreal,’’ she adds, recalling the black sound stage and not knowing what time of day it was. “It does go fast, because they are shuttling you all around … ‘’
A lot of the time, the competitors would have to face a wall or close their eyes while challenges were set up. “You never really found your groove,’’ she says. “It was the most humbling thing I’ve ever done in my life.’’
The hardest part, she says, was trying not to look over at the other contestants’ food choices “and psych myself out.’’
But win or lose (she can’t spill the beans), it was a valuable learning experience, and she says she’d do it again. “I’m someone who wants to learn from everyone she works with,’’ she says, adding that she was very impressed with the judges’ feedback. “I’m really glad I did it.’’
So is Correia, who will host a watch party for Riekert during Wednesday evening’s rebroadcast (so as not to interrupt Valentine’s Day) in the Pop Shop party room.
“I had been wanting to be back on the Food Network, obviously. And I never really thought to go after ‘Chopped,’ so it’s neat that they came to us. And for Nonna, the theme is perfect. We were very excited when she got on, and I started to watch the show now. After I watched it, I was nervous for you,’’ Correia says to her friend. “We’re inviting everyone to come watch on the big screen.’’
Riekert will watch the original airing at home with her wife, Robin Bonfield, although children Cooper, 5, and Grayson, 2, will likely be asleep.
“I’m going to try to make it to 10 p.m.,’’ says the busy chef. “Depending on how it goes, I’ll either be hiding in the bathroom or I’ll be like, ‘Woot! Woot!’’
Just as the chance to compete on “Chopped,’’ the food truck came as an unexpected challenge, one she quickly embraced.
So, what is it like rolling around the region in a kitchen on wheels?
“It’s a lot of work,’’ she reflects. “We have some steady gigs this winter, and a couple of corporate parks. We’re doing a lot of private parties and stuff, so it’s cool. We just did a fundraiser with the Flyers last night at Helium. We fed 200 people. It’s amazing what you can do with a food truck.
“It’s kind of like playing Tetris,’’ she continues, adding she is usually on board with Pop Shop co-owner Bill “Stink’’ Fisher and a fry cook. “You have to be very, very exact.’’
Happily, she says, she and Fisher have the same taste in music, so they’ve been rocking out lately to Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day.’’
“I wanted to have my own restaurant, but it just wasn’t coming together for me. And the whole time I was away from The Pop Shop, I was still referring to it as ‘we’ and ‘us,’ so maybe this was just meant to be.’’
FOR MORE INFORMATION
“Chopped: Blue Plate Fate’’ airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the Food Network. Visit foodnetwork.com
A screening party will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at The Pop Shop party room, 729 Haddon Ave., Collingswood. Open to the public.
For more about Pop Shop A-Go-Go, visit http://www.popshopagogo.com/