In a little more than 24 hours, 10 weeks of effort will come to fruition.
On Thursday, our four Cook of the Week Challenge finalists will don their aprons, sharpen their knives and put their culinary creativity to the test as they compete in a live cook-off for the title of Cook of the Year and a suite of prizes valued at more than $3,000.
The contest kicked off in late August, and over the course of two months the cooks have competed in head-to-head secret ingredient recipe challenges. I gave each pair of contestants four to five days to develop their recipes. But when the four convene at the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg Thursday, they'll have one hour to prep and plate their dish. If that weren't pressure enough, they'll be cooking not in the comfort of their own kitchens but in front of a sold-out crowd of 300-odd curious foodies.
I chatted with them briefly in the midst of their preparation to see how they're holding up.
Remember when Greg Brady learned to get over nervousness by picturing people in their underwear? Well, Terri has a similar coping mechanism, so when you watch her cooking Thursday night don't be surprised if she calls you sweetie or punkin.
"During the finals, I'll imagine myself cooking for family and friends, and serving great food that everyone will thoroughly enjoy," the Naperville wife and mother of two said.
Strength: "My strengths come purely from the heart. I only began experimenting in the kitchen with cooking about six years ago but in this time, I've learned what it means to cook from my heart and I enjoy making foods that my family and friends love."
Cook-off prep: "Each night I've been on a mission to make something completely new, something I've never made before. Last night I made authentic German spaetzle. Tonight I will make tempura lager battered shrimp with a sriracha aioli. ... I'm strategizing about how to prepare some of my most favorite dishes -- the ones that I would go back for seconds and thirds -- with a twist of any secret ingredient that might be presented to us. I'm also searching my mind for versatile recipes that can stand up to big flavors; that will be a part of my plan. Without a doubt, I will be nervous but having a thought-through 'plan' of sorts makes me feel like I'm in control of my destiny."
Chuck is no stranger to the heat of competition. I first met him in early 2011 when I judged a different cooking contest at Hyatt Regency Schaumburg. The Hanover Park man didn't win that evening, but he impressed me enough that we featured him as a Cook of the Week.
Despite the contest experience, he admits to restless nights.
"I have not been sleeping very well, I am just constantly putting together dishes in my mind," Chuck says. "Luckily I am not a surgeon, because (the cook-off) is all that's on my mind!"
Strength: "I believe I have been able to envision the mystery ingredients quite well so far; hopefully that will continue."
Cook-off prep:"My prep has been scanning quite a few books that I have, I am still watching my usual two to three hours of food shows a night. I will probably cook all day Sunday to get in the groove. I am also having my knives professionally sharpened."
A 21-year teaching veteran of Schaumburg High School, Michael has been trying to calm himself the same way he calms his physics students before big tests.
"To cope, I'm trying to adapt the advice I give my students before the AP exam which is basically: I need to believe that I'm prepared because I've been cooking for years, so as long as I give this my best effort then I will be successful regardless of whether I win or not."
He also plans on chatting up a local chef and former "Hell's Kitchen" contestant about cooking under pressure. (I hope he doesn't compare me to Gordon Ramsay in the process.)
Strength: "I like to think my strengths as a cook are in slow cooking meats and the wood oven pizzas I make. These are both pretty useless in this competition so I guess my main strength is that I rarely make any meals by following a set recipe. I also am familiar with many different styles of cooking so I hope that helps too."
Cook-off prep: "I actually was going to get my knives sharpened and also buy a new slicing knife since the one I have is bent. I'm also planning on looking through the various recipes and books I have collected through the years to make notes about possible spice palettes and ingredient ratios for sauces and dressings.
I've decided that trying to guess the mystery ingredients is not very productive and just makes things worse in my head. At one point I imagined a whole tuna, a bottle of ketchup, a Snickers bar and Gruyere cheese ... that's when I told myself I need to stop."
(Editor's note to self: Remember this combo for 2013.)
If you went looking for Louann last weekend, she was probably in the kitchen in a flurry of flour.
"Baking relaxes me and clears my mind, so there will be lots of that going on this week," the Des Plaines woman said. By Friday she had already filled her house with red velvet cupcakes, chocolate peanut butter cookies and a cherry pie.
While she's a passionate baker, she showed us with her tofu tacos and Moroccan chicken that she's not afraid to cross over to the savory side. I wouldn't be surprised if she channels Food Network star Guy Fieri during the Thursday night showdown.
Strength:"My strength is my confidence in my abilities and that I'm familiar with a variety of ethnic cuisines."
Cook-off prep: "I am reading everything I can get my hands on, from blogs on the Internet to Bon Appétit and Cook's Illustrated to my many cookbooks. I will also be watching episodes of 'Chopped' and 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives;' a lot of inspiration comes from this show."