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Self-taught home cook and Wyckoff committeeman Kevin Rooney took his kitchen skills all the way to the top on Food Network's cooking competition show Chopped, which he won in 2013. (Photo by Anne-Marie Caruso)
Posted: Friday December 27, 2013, 3:15 PM
By Laura Herzog - (201) Magazine

On Christmas morning, Wyckoff Committeeman Kevin Rooney made his family a big breakfast of scrambled eggs.

As one might expect from Food Network's 2013 Chopped champion – who was able to assemble a dish on the timed competition show using mystery ingredients like purple asparagus, fish roe and blueberry wine – they weren't just any eggs.

They were ostrich eggs.

"I made regular eggs and I made ostrich eggs. I wouldn't tell which was which. It was probably 50-50 being right and wrong," recalls Rooney, who acquired the fresh eggs from a Sussex County ostrich farmer.

Ostrich meat was also one of the ingredients Rooney had to work with – for the first time – during the competition, which premiered Feb. 24 and has since re-aired several times.

According to Rooney's daughter, Jordan, who secretly submitted her father's application to the show more than two years ago, the meal wasn't that shocking for her family.

Her father, who has no technical cooking training, regularly makes the family traditional seasonal meals – pastas, grilled meats and vegetables, seafood, meatloaf – but he has previously prepared foods like escargot, too. He also has had his four children try rattlesnake and frog legs in restaurants.

"He does make different things," Jordan says. "He makes us like a gourmet breakfast, gourmet dinner. We're very lucky."

In a way, Rooney's adventurous approach to food and cooking reflects his life philosophy.

"I think exposing your kids fully to different types of food makes them well-rounded, meaning they can enjoy life a little more," Rooney says. "Exposing yourself in life to different things is always good. It kind of challenges you to be a better person."

With that attitude, the committeeman says he was unconcerned about winning on Chopped. Becoming a Chopped champion – by beating three other contestants also picked from thousands of applicants – was just a bonus.

Even nicer for Rooney than the win is how he has been able to use his $10,000 show winnings and new celebrity status to get meals to people who need them – this time, without even touching an ingredient.

The former mayor donated the Chopped prize money to the Paterson nonprofit Oasis – A Haven for Women and Children. According to the organization's executive director, Sister Gloria Perez, Rooney's donation helped the charity establish a culinary program this past September.

The program, which should take place again this spring, teaches varied cooking skills. The organization, Perez says, hopes to help participants find employment through "ServSafe" food handling and management certification.

"[Rooney] didn't want to just make a donation. He wanted to help change lives," she says. "It was just natural fit."

Even more locally, Rooney's new celebrity cook status helps him bring more attention to a Wyckoff nonprofit dedicated to raising funds for breast cancer research and local support. Called 074ATE1 after the township's zip code, the group's "Meaningful Meals" program provides meals to local families dealing with the cancer.

This past May, Rooney asked the organization to attend the Lyndhurst Health, Safety and Life Expo, an all-day event co-sponsored by The Bergen County Department of Health Services.

On its website, the group says Rooney provided "an opportunity to bring our mission to a larger audience and new parts of Bergen County."

"He's been absolutely amazing," 074ATE1 president Lynn Murphy says. "He has shown up to every event that 074ATE1 has had in our [first] year of existence."

According to Murphy, 074ATE1 began as a fundraising venture – a cookbook featuring Wyckoff residents' recipes.

Because his talent wasn't public knowledge before the show, Rooney was not featured, Murphy notes, but she would "absolutely" love him to be in a second cookbook if there is one.

Still, any "Rooney recipe" will take time to gather, since the committeeman does not use recipes.

"I just kind of taste it and put it back together in my mind," he says.

Whatever Rooney does next with his celebrity needs to feel right. He says he has turned down some other television offers, but he would consider making a cookbook if it could aid some kind of charitable work.

"Listen, I'm just a home cook," Rooney says. "If I can use this as a platformÉI think that's the best part of it."

Rooney's friends and family say this is the kind of person he is: good-hearted and unaltered by the Food Network song and dance. They note that Rooney, who runs a real estate management company, and his wife, Hayley, a local EMT, engaged in charitable work well before Chopped.

Hayley says her husband started cooking later in their marriage, when he had more time and a bigger kitchen, and "everything kind of fell into place."

"He's the kind of guy where he loves to make everyone happy," she says. "We're really close because we do take that time to sit around the table."

Jordan, a recent college graduate, called her father a genuine "family man."

"I'm still living at home, because I don't want to leave," she says. "Not a lot of young adults can say they like being home. I like being home."

According to Rooney's longtime friend and fellow former Wyckoff mayor Chris DePhillips, Rooney's Chopped participation, which Rooney kept to himself for a year after the show's taping, might have helped more residents see him as a regular guy.

"It's important to remind residents that your elected officials are just representatives of you," DePhillips says. "The fact that he was able to do this showed that he was multidimensional. I think that's what the public wants."

No matter what happens down the line, Rooney plans to keep cooking for his growing family. He'll continue going food shopping, too, which is at least one thing that has changed a bit since Chopped.

"I'll have a lady come up to me and say you really do cook," Rooney says with a laugh. "They'll tell me, 'I've got to go home and tell my husband.'"

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