When Carpentersville resident and Schaumburg High School teacher Michael Pennisi was announced as the winner of the Daily Herald's second annual Cook of the Year contest Thursday night, 300 pairs of eyes rapidly searched the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg for the man of the hour.
After a moment, he ran up from a crowd at the side of the room, waving his arms and hugging the already named runner-up Louann Zundel of Des Plaines.
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"I'm kind of just stunned right now!" was Pennisi's first reaction. "This is way cool!"
Pennisi was in competition for his new title and $3,000 worth of prizes for 10 weeks. But it was through his spur-of-the-moment preparation of a dish that had to incorporate salmon, Greek yogurt, pomegranates and Brussels sprouts that he beat fellow semifinalists Zundel, Terri Edmunds of Naperville and Chuck Federici of Hanover Park.
Pennisi's winning dish consisted of sauteed salmon with spicy sweet potatoes and "Brussels slaw." But he experienced a moment of trepidation when the secret ingredients were revealed to the four competitors just minutes before the start of the event.
"I had issues," Pennisi said, proudly holding the giant silver spoon with a blue ribbon on the handle that distinguished him as the winner. "My wife doesn't like fish. I don't cook it very often. And I don't like Brussels sprouts."
But he was familiar enough with the ingredients, and the winning idea came to him within minutes.
"I took the first thing that came into my head and ran with it," Pennisi explained.
He teaches physics at Schaumburg High School, but said very few of his students were aware of his involvement in the competition.
Now, however, he expects to get requests to bake things from both students and fellow faculty.
Pennisi's awards include a state-of-the art dishwasher, George Foreman Grill, spices, meals at both the College of Lake County and Harper College's student-run eateries and the chance to be a guest instructor at Harper College.
Among the five judges for the event was last year's winner, Penny Kazmier of South Barrington, who said many more opportunities probably await Pennisi than just the prizes he took home.
Over the last year, she has become a food columnist for the Daily Herald and has been invited to many events, including a massive houseware show at McCormick Place.
"That was like being a kid in the candy store for me," Kazmier said.
When she arrived for Thursday's event, Kazmier briefly met with each semifinalist and gave them all some friendly advice.
"I told them, 'Don't be nervous, just cook something you'd like to eat,'" she said.
The judging criteria allowed up to 10 points each for use of ingredients, creativity and appearance and 20 points for taste.
"Of course, it's got to taste good," Daily Herald Food Editor Deborah Pankey said.
While the competitors spent exactly one hour preparing their dishes, the crowd was entertained by a variety of food and dishes from many event sponsors while a succession of professional chefs narrated quick cooking demonstrations from the stage in the center of the ballroom.