Sharp knives and restless nights.
Those common threads emerged when I asked the four finalists in the Cook of the Week Challenge what they've been up to since learning a week ago that they'll be competing at tonight's cook-off for a grand prize and the title of Daily Herald Cook of the Year.
Cate Brusenbach, Mark Clemens, Penny Kazmier and Michael Lalagos each survived two recipe challenge rounds to earn their places at the live, sold-out event at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg. Working in a room filled with 200 curious food enthusiasts, they will have one hour to prepare a dish using four secret ingredients and present it to five judges. The judges will sample each dish and select a winner, who will walk away with a $3,600 Solaire Infrared Grill.
I asked each contestant what strength he or she will bring to the competition and what went into their preparations for the cook-off.
I wouldn't go so far as to say Cate's taking this contest too seriously, but she's actually studying for it -- using a culinary school textbook a friend gave her.
"It's been real eye-opening," the 54-year-old Antioch woman said. "I'm learning new terminology, new techniques."
She said she's also been reading and rereading her competitors' recipes and the judges' comments from earlier rounds and playing ingredient scenarios in her head.
"I'm having a harder time getting to sleep," Cate admits. "My mind is on an endless loop playing scenarios; not just at bed time, but all day long."
Strength: "I can figure out within five minutes what I'm going to do with these ingredients. A friend called me a recipe idiot savant."
Trying to clear his mind has been tough for this passionate, confident cook who admits to waking up at 3 a.m. with ingredient anxiety.
"I did get my knives sharpened," said Mark, 58, of Elgin. "And I'm making notes to myself on techniques: frying, layering, reduction, emulsifying. I'm thinking in general chapters of a cookbook instead of specific recipes."
Mark maintains that his qualifying recipes have done the best job of highlighting the secret ingredients but he, too, has been reviewing the others' recipes and the judges' comments "to see if there's anything in particular they're looking for."
Strength: "I feel comfortable in the kitchen. I truly believe eating should be a joyful experience. I want food to taste good more than anything."
Penny hasn't been sitting around dwelling on the contest. In the last two weeks, the 47-year-old South Barrington mom attended the Epcot Food and Wine Festival where she took classes with celebrity chefs and grilled them on induction cooking, and then jetted to Texas to visit, and of course cook for, a bachelor son.
"I've been investigating the whole induction thing," Penny said, referring to the state-of-the-art Thermidor surface the contestants will use tonight.
She has used her time on planes to read food magazines and check out recipe apps.
"I think they (the other finalists) all have different creative twists that they're going to bring to the competition. I'm really more focused on myself and what I'm going to do," she said.
Strength: "Any confidence I have comes from experience."
Michael has tried to clear food thoughts from his mind, but that hasn't worked.
"I'm trying to tell myself not to over think it ... but I had the Hawks game on and there's a stack of cookbooks next to me; or I'll be at work and something will come to me and I'll look it up on the Internet," said Michael, 32, of Schaumburg.
Michael said he's taken to heart a judge's comment that he "played it safe" in an earlier round so he says he'll push himself tonight to "come up with something a little edgy."
Strength: "I don't overdo it; I let the ingredients speak for themselves."