Penny Kazmier gasped, covered her mouth and then started to cry after being named the Daily Herald's Cook of the Year Wednesday night.
"I can't believe it," she said afterward. "This is the frosting on top of my cake. I love to cook, and I wouldn't call it validation, but I'm just thrilled that someone liked my food."
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The five judges picked the 47-year-old South Barrington woman's stuffed pork tenderloin over the dishes prepared by Cate Brusenbach, 54, of Antioch; Mark Clemens, 58, of Elgin; and Michael Lalagos, 32, of Schaumburg. Brusenbach placed second.
In addition to the title, Kazmier takes home more than $4,000 worth of prizes, including a Solaire infrared grill.
More than 200 guests attended the sold-out event at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg, which was free to members of the Daily Herald's Subscriber Total Access.
The room was lined with vendors providing tastings and free samples, and the Hyatt chefs set up food stations for the guests. Raffle prizes were also auctioned off, raising money for the Northern Illinois Food Bank in addition to the $2,500 the Daily Herald donated.
At the beginning of the night, the four finalists were told they have five ingredients -- fresh cranberries, dried cranberries, pork tenderloins, canned chipotle peppers and hazelnuts -- and were given one hour to prepare their dish while dozens of spectators surrounded their work stations and watched.
"It's very nice because it's like 'Iron Chef,' but with people in your own community," said Mary Kay Marrello of Carol Stream, who attended with a group of her friends who enjoy cooking.
"That's what people want is real people, not celebrities," added Phyllis Noakes of Mount Prospect.
Carol Wilson and Barb Nathaus, both of Palatine, say they've enjoyed watching the contest but weren't rooting for anyone in particular.
"We wish them all well," said Nathaus. "I don't want to pull for one or the other. I like them all."
Kazmier says winning Cook of the Year might persuade her to start her own catering business, something the mother of four has always considered doing. With her youngest graduating from Barrington High School next year, the timing might be right. Her winning recipe was pork tenderloin stuffed with cranberries, shallots and bread crumbs, and glazed with balsamic vinaigrette, root beer and adobe sauce served with stuffing, a sweet potato hash and chutney.
Brusenbach's second-place dish was pork tenderloin stuffed with feta cheese, hazelnuts and cranberries with a chipotle glaze and gingered carrot purée.
Daily Herald Food Editor Deborah Pankey said she was "blown away" by the quality of the cooking from the four finalists, who had advanced from an initial pool of nearly 100 cooks and 16 official contestants.
"The creativity that these cooks showed under pressure ... it's phenomenal," she said. "It's been awe-inspiring."
Daily Herald Director of Innovation and Audience Development Eileen Brown said readers have been drawn in to this contest from the start, because they like having local contestants and sponsors.
"There's been a tremendous response," Brown said. "There will definitely be more Cook of the Year contests in the future."