Growing up, Philadelphia’s Michael O’Halloran was an all-around good kid. Therefore, when he experienced a “brief two-week period of juvenile delinquency,” his father wasted no time in nipping it in the bud by sending him to work as a dishwasher at a local restaurant as “punishment.”
Little did the family know, this arrangement would not only spark a culinary passion in O’Halloran, but eventually have him cooking a signature dish beside one of the top chefs in the world.
Earlier this month, O’Halloran, the executive chef of Stella New Hope, graced TV screens as a competitor on the Food Network’s long-running series Beat Bobby Flay, which tasks contestants with crafting a better dish than the celebrity chef and restaurateur.
Despite going into the situation chock-full of nerves, O’Halloran came out victorious thanks to his perfectly-executed smoked duck, a staple on the Stella menu.
“It’s just absolute panic. The cameras are all buzzing around and nobody’s there to hold your hand or help you out,” reflected O’Halloran. “But once I knew that I was going to get my stuff done on time, the last 10 minutes were actually fun. There was more banter and I could really enjoy it.”
Beat Bobby Flay consists of two high-pressure rounds. In the first, which lasts a mere 20 minutes, O’Halloran was pitted against fellow chef Alex Stickland. The two were given a surprise ingredient – ricotta cheese – and had to whip up a dish accordingly. Thanks to his caramelized onion apple butternut squash bisque with rosemary ricotta cheese, O’Halloran advanced to the second and final round to go head-to-head with Flay himself.
After an intense 45 minutes of preparing smoked duck on the episode rightfully entitled “Fowl Shot,” it was time for the judges’ critiques. As O’Halloran listened to their disappointment over Flay’s duck not being smokey enough, he thought, “Sh*t, I think I won!”
And he was correct.
Though no cash prize is given to Beat Bobby Flay winners, O’Halloran’s presence on the show brought happiness to his wife, two daughters (ages 9 and 6) and mother, who he said “called every human being that she’s ever met.” It also brought positive exposure to Stella, where the Berks County Peking Duck has become in demand.
What makes O’Halloran’s duck so good? Practice. For 10 years, O’Halloran has been tweaking the recipe to ensure a perfectly-prepared bird.
“Duck is challenging because the skin is really thick and really oily because it’s a waterfowl, but then the flesh is really, really delicate, so it’s easy to overcook the flesh,” O’Halloran said, explaining that he cooks the skin for a long time to get the fat out and the flesh for just a few minutes to prevent dryness. He then puts a spice rub on and leaves it overnight to pull out more fat and increase crispiness.
Since he started working in New Hope in 2019, O’Halloran began utilizing the town’s abundance of hay to smoke the duck instead of hardwood, which can cause it to taste “like a hotdog” if overdone. Another tip is to smoke the duck after cooking it, rather than before, for a better-controlled process of managing the smoke flavor.
“I thought, if he [Flay] just gets a recipe for smoked duck, he’s going to do it the way I did it 10 years ago and not enjoy all the benefits of the changes I’ve made to that recipe,” said O’Halloran. “He hasn’t worked with it every day for all these years. I had that advantage.”
O’Halloran boasts several decades in the industry, climbing the ladder from dishwasher and busboy to executive chef at Philadelphia’s White Dog Café and, most recently, Stella. However, all of that time spent in busy restaurant environments couldn’t prepare him for the stresses of cooking on television.
When O’Halloran received the email inviting him to appear on Beat Bobby Flay (he previously ran into a past acquaintance who worked on the show), his gut reaction was, “Absolutely not. I’m not doing that show because all I kept thinking of was the downside of it. I was torn between the upside of winning versus the downside of humiliation.” Yet after the encouragement of his family, especially his daughters’ excitement over their dad being on TV, he agreed.
Filming took place in New York over the course of 12 hours. O’Halloran described it as “psychologically terrifying” and “completely overwhelming” for a number of reasons: the kitchen is set up to look nice on-screen but is difficult to navigate; there’s a live audience and cameras everywhere; and there’s little to no time to prepare.
“You’re given five minutes before starting to cook,” O’Halloran said of the surprise ingredient first round. “There’s no phone calls, you can’t look up recipes on the internet because they confiscate your phone. I was so scared of choking and doing nothing, just standing there and looking like an idiot.”
Upon advancing past the inaugural round, O’Halloran felt more confident. He was now familiar with the kitchen and ready to prepare a dish that was agreed upon prior to arriving on set.
“I was just hyper focused. I was like, ‘I’m going to murder that clock. I’m going to be done 10 minutes before. I’m not listening to anybody. I’m not getting distracted. I’m going to do it the way that I practiced in my own kitchen,’” he said. “I was nervous, but I had something to do with my nervous energy.”
His efforts paid off and, thankfully, Flay accepted the loss as gracefully as he could.
“I don’t think he likes losing, but at the end he said, ‘That’s a really great duck, congratulations,’” said O’Halloran. “He’s a much nicer guy than I think he tries to portray himself as.”
On the heels of this once in a lifetime occurrence, O’Halloran is looking back with fondness on his “brief two-week period of juvenile delinquency” and resulting “punishment” that unexpectedly set the trajectory of his career.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened,” he said.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org