BARRE — Stefano Coppola, the black-bearded chef-owner of Morse Block Deli & Taps, broke seven months of silence after a “soggy bagel” sunk his chances of winning up to $20,000 in his first-ever Food Network appearance Wednesday night.
“Now I can talk about it all I want,” Coppola joked Thursday during a brief break at the Barre delicatessen he purchased nearly three years ago.
Coppola said he has been playing coy since filming the latest episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games” last October.
“There were a lot of people I wanted to tell, but I couldn’t,” said Coppola, who was sworn to secrecy by the show’s producers until after the episode aired.
In the episode — “Best Sandwich!” — Coppola embraced his narrow defeat in a sandwich showdown that seemed made to order for a man with a reputation for making them.
“I was out-sandwiched,” he said of a cooking contest that was almost too close to call.
Judges on the show, hosted by Food Network star Guy Fieri, said Coppola could blame the loss on the “structural integrity” of the third and final sandwich he produced, not its “bold and aggressive” flavors.
“The soggy bagel got me,” Coppola said of one of three required ingredients in the “stacked and jacked” sandwich competition he lost to fellow finalist Ava Kerr.
Coppola and Kerr, who owns a gourmet sandwich shop in Toronto, advanced to the show’s final round after two other contestants were eliminated.
Coppola said it was the face-off he was expecting after sizing up his competition before filming started.
“I was pretty confident,” he said.
Neither produced flawless sandwiches in the first two rounds, but both easily advanced on the strength of sandwiches the judges raved about. Coppola said the show took 14 hours to film on a cross-country trip that saw him fly from Vermont to California and back again in less than 48 hours.
“It was exhausting, super-intense, but really fun,” he said of an episode he saw for the first time with friends at Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, where he worked as the chef for two years before opening his own business.
Coppola, a 2012 graduate of New England Culinary Institute, said plenty of what he had to say — including repeated references to Barre and a number of Vermont food businesses — were edited out of a show that was “fun to watch.”
Right up until the end.
“It would have been nice to win,” he said.
Coppola gave it a good go at Fieri’s Flavortown Market during his brief stay in Santa Rosa, California.
Asked to produce a “fried sandwich,” Coppola delivered one with ingredients collected without a shopping cart in the converted 15,500-square-foot warehouse that serves as the show’s set.
The other contestants all went chicken, but Coppola chose pork, while lamenting his arms weren’t big enough to grab fresh vegetables to cut through the rich components.
Judges echoed that assessment, but otherwise raved about the “Tonkatsu pork sandwich with ponzu reduction, sriracha mayo, and fried egg” he served them.
“It was good,” he said.
Same goes for the “international sandwich” he made in the second round, when he was forced to incorporate an item chosen from an aisle dominated by pet foods.
Coppola said he enjoyed playing along when Fieri joked with the judges he’d chosen cat food, but his eyes lit up on the show when he was bailed out by baby food.
“Sounds like sauce to me,” he said on the show.
“That round terrified me,” said Coppola, who used the mango, orange and banana baby food to make the sauce for the “pulled chicken sandwich with Caribbean BBQ sauce and braised kale” he served to the judges. It was a huge hit, even though some suggested the smoked chicken was a touch too smokey.
It wasn’t taste that tripped Coppola up in the final round and, truth be told, it may have been the way the show is filmed.
After preparing food for each of the judges, Coppola said the contestants are pulled aside to film brief segments during which they explain and, in some cases critique, what they’ve just cooked.
That might have been the downfall of the “Southeast Asian-inspired pork bagel sandwich with lychee curry and kohlrabi pickles” Coppola served.
The sandwich, which stood 5 inches high, met the “stacked and jacked” criteria of the challenge. It incorporated the three required ingredients — bagel, lychee and pork rinds. It also packed a flavor-filled punch thanks to the red curry sauce that regrettably turned the bottom half of the bagel into a sponge.
The bagel sucked up the sauce while Coppola was talking on camera about what he’d just made.
Had the sandwiches been served immediately?
“They might not have been soggy,” he said of the bagels. “They definitely sat there for 15 minutes.”
Coppola isn’t complaining.
“It was a blast,” he said, describing the flamboyant Fieri as “surprisingly down to earth.”
“He’s a really chill guy,” he said.
Winning some money would have been nice — Kerr collected $16,000 of a possible $20,000 for her appearance. Coppola had hoped to use any winnings to travel to Italy with his wife. That trip has been delayed, but, he said, he plans to take it in the next year using the money he makes selling sandwiches in downtown Barre.
“It’s what I do,” Coppola said before getting back to doing it on Thursday.