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posted: 10/6/2013 5:00 AM

No one gets 'Chopped' in our cooking contest

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As the director of news and matrix operations, DuPage and Fox Valley editions, I have many important duties. One involves carting the framed portraits of staff service and excellence award winners between our flagship office in Arlington Heights and our bureaus in Elgin and Lisle, where I alternately reside.

I recently was bestowed with another courier-type function: getting the bag of "mystery ingredients" to the contestants in our Cook of the Week Challenge who live near one of my outposts. This past week, I picked up the bag of goodies from the officiator of this reader-involvement project, Food Editor Deborah Pankey.

"What are you giving them, this week -- bricks?" I asked.

No, Deb replied, it was copious amounts of sardines, chick peas, Twizzlers and almond butter. Add four similarly disparate food items and you've got the next cooking challenge: Create a gourmet recipe from that stuff.

A panel of judges evaluates the recipes and declares a winner, who moves on to the next round of the contest, a strategy that seems much more chef friendly than a similar show on the Food Network, "Chopped," in which four chefs are, one by one, ceremoniously dismissed by the judges and are shown taking a departing walk of shame -- a proven recipe for success on shows ranging from "Big Break" on the Golf Channel to getting booted off the island on the amazingly long-running "Survivor."

But that's TV. Our competition -- and, no, Deb says, the idea was not inspired by "Chopped" -- is much more contestant friendly. In fact, our competing cooks are "very encouraging and supportive of each other." They interact on a Facebook page created for the event. And here's something you don't hear on every episode of "Chopped" -- contestant Dan Rich has pledged to give any prize he wins to his local Boys and Girls Club. Ya gotta love what Dan does for a living when he's not cooking with Twizzlers: He's public works superintendent for the city of Elgin.

That's another thing ya gotta love about this contest. It's all about our readers. The eight remaining contestants come from communities as far-reaching as our circulation area: Aurora, Des Plaines, Elgin, Fox River Grove, Glendale Heights, Palatine, South Elgin and West Chicago.

Reader involvement, by the way, was the main impetus for our 3-year-old cooking challenge. It was spawned by the success of our "Fittest Loser" challenge, in which local folks competed to see who could lose the most weight. (OK, a similar TV show might have had that idea first.)

So, give us low marks for raw originality, perhaps, but there's little question these interactive events have been popular with participants, readers and sponsors. The ballroom at the Hyatt Hotel in Schaumburg, where we hold the cook-off, holds 400 people. It's sold out every year, sometimes with a waiting list.

Furthermore, says Eileen Brown, our director of strategic marketing and innovation, this collaboration between the newsroom and the marketing department is a creative way to "connect our readers with our advertisers in a real-time, face-to-face setting."

Speaking of participation, stay tuned to Wednesday editions. There, Deb will provide the details in our Food section about signing up to attend the live cook-off Oct. 30 at the Hyatt. She promises the show will be fun for viewers, though perhaps just a pinch stressful for the contestants.

No, they're not on TV. But they are cooking in front of a few hundred people ("Maybe some who are bold enough to stop by and ask for a taste," Deb says.) They're using foreign equipment, and, of course, they're being recorded by a Daily Herald videographer. They're timed, too. So amid all these distractions, Deb says, "All you want to do is finish."

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