This time last year Michael Pennisi was just another high school teacher enjoying his summer off ... traveling with his wife, relaxing and cooking out for family and friends.
A friend suggested he apply for "Chopped," the Food Network show that pits four chefs against each other in a series of mystery basket challenges.
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"But 'Chopped' is a nationwide show that takes only a few amateurs and uses really odd ingredients," Pennisi said. Beef tongue, gummy bears, duck confit and American cheese slices have shown up in baskets.
So the Carpentersville man decided to enter a contest closer to home.
"I thought my chances to be accepted were better and the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge is a lot more practical than 'Chopped' because the recipes use common items and are meant to be shared."
Not only did Pennisi get selected as one of the 16 home cooks in the Cook of the Week Challenge, he won the final cook-off and was named Daily Herald Cook of the Year.
Now it's your turn.
The Daily Herald is again looking for 16 home cooks (18 years old and older) from across the suburbs to participate in our elimination-style competition. Our mission -- besides finding the suburbs' best cook -- is to introduce cooks to some new ingredients and get them thinking about common pantry items in a new way.
Each week I will unveil a basket of secret ingredients that must be used to create a recipe. Beef tongue has not made an appearance (yet?!), but items like tomatillos, blueberries, quinoa, kale and whole chicken have.
Those recipes will be evaluated by judges including former Master Chef contestant and NOW Foods research and development chef Suzy Singh and John Junior, the new executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield Schaumburg. I'm also bringing Pennisi and Penny Kazmier, the South Barrington mom who won our inaugural Cook of the Week Challenge, onto the judges panel because this is a contest for home cooks after all.
Eight winners will advance to a second recipe challenge round and then four finalists will compete in a live cook-off Oct. 30 at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield. The winner will be named Cook of the Year 2013 and receive a bunch of cool prizes. We're still finalizing the prize package, so stay tuned.
The deadline to enter is July 24. The 16 contestants will be introduced in the Aug. 28 Food section.
The entry form is at www.surveymonkey.com/s/cotw2013 and includes space to submit an original recipe. Please make sure your recipe includes ingredient amounts, clear directions and the number of servings.
This is not a first-come, first-picked situation. We will review all the applications and notify the 16 contestants in early August.
Feel free to email me with questions about the competition at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope to see you in October. Until then, happy cooking.