Last week I had the privilege of judging the regional round of the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition at Kendall College in Chicago. The contest, now in its 12th year, challenges college culinary students to create a signature dish that they must cook and serve to a judging panel that includes celebrity chefs and food writers, like myself.
This year's regional contest featured eight students -- three from Illinois, two from Kentucky and one each from Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri -- vying for the opportunity to represent the Midwest at the finals in Napa Valley, Calif., in March. The winner receives a paid internship with a top chef and a $20,000 cash prize.
What was just as fun as tasting each of the carefully thought-out entrees and meeting our future culinary stars was catching up with local winners from previous Almost Famous Chef competitions.
Remember Jennifer Kim of Schaumburg? Last year as a Kendall College student she won the regional competition and the national competition with her chard-wrapped duck breast and golden beet purée. These days you can find Kim in the kitchen at Blackbird with mentor/chef Dan Posey.
"It's my first fine-dining kitchen," Kim says excitedly. "I've gotten to work every station; if I want to learn how to butcher rabbits or ducks he lets me."
Since winning the regional and national contest in 2011, Vernon Hills native Marco Bahena, also a Kendall College graduate, has spent time in kitchens in Spain and the south of France. Today he's working alongside Chef Jean Joho (one of the contest judges and mentors) at Everest in Chicago.
"The competition was an absolutely life-changing experience ... the opportunities I've been given, the mentorships.
"Chef Joho was my mentor, now I'm working with him every day," Bahena said. "How many cooks get the opportunity to do that?"
The 2010 regional winner, Brian Schreiber, a Streamwood High School graduate, was on hand as well. Schreiber now teaches at Kendall College.
Kendall College's Paula Wojcik, a Wheeling High School graduate, won the People's Choice Award that evening, but it's Kamisha Jones from Sullivan University in Loiusville, Ky. who will be heading to the final cook-off in March.
Let it snow: It's winter in the suburbs but you sure wouldn't know that by looking outside most days. Not that I want a blinding storm or impassable roads, but a white cover of snow would be nice to cloak the browning grass and barren trees.
Since I'm not finding any snow outside, I had to search inside and I turned up Iceberg Vodka's Snowcap Martini. Smooth as Wisconsin slopes, this frosty cocktail makes a nice sipper for chilly evenings (and we have had some of those).
Into a shaker filled with ice add 2 ounces vodka and ½ ounce each coffee liqueur, peppermint schnapps and half-and-half. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass. Mittens are optional.
Contest corner: The entry window is now open for the National Beef Cook-Off.
The contest, in its 30th year, is calling on home cooks to submit convenient, healthy and ultimately delicious recipes starring beef. On the line is $25,000 and a trip to the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show in Washington D.C.
This year's contest theme, "Making the Most of MyPlate," encourages entrants to develop original and tasty beef-focused recipes that include broadly appealing ingredients from the fruit and vegetable, grain products and dairy products groups.
The four recipe categories are:
• Belt-Tightening Beef Recipes: Healthy and affordable beef recipes that are great values to prepare. Recipes should include a maximum of nine ingredients including beef and flavorful, low-cost ingredients from the fruits or vegetables, grain products and dairy products food groups.
• Semi-Homemade Beef Recipes: Recipes that combine any fresh beef cut and fresh ingredients with prepackaged food products. Recipes should include a maximum of six ingredients including the beef, and fruits or vegetables, grain products and dairy products food groups, and be prepared and cooked in 30 minutes or less.
• Real-Worldly, Real Simple Beef & Potato Recipes: Easy-to-make lean beef and fresh potato centered recipes that feature international flavors and maintain a healthy profile. Recipes should include no more than 10 commonly available and affordable ingredients including the beef and potatoes, along with at least one other ingredient from the fruits or vegetables, grain products or dairy products food groups. Recipes should be prepared in no more than 15 minutes and cooked in 30 minutes.
• Craveable Fresh Beef and Fresh California Avocado Recipes: Recipes must use all fresh ingredients, featuring one of the lean beef cuts and at least one fresh California avocado. Recipes should include no more than eight ingredients, including the beef and avocado, along with at least one other ingredient from the fruits or vegetables, grain products or dairy products food groups, and be prepared and cooked in 30 minutes or less.
Head to beefcookoff.org for details and to enter. The deadline in April 15. Fourteen cooks will compete at the cook-off in November.
• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at email@example.com or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at Facebook.com/DebPankey.DailyHerald or follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest @PankeysPlate.