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Article updated: 10/23/2013 5:48 PM

Cook of the Week Challenge: Motyka, Murphy, Rich, Wikrotek head to cook-off

By Deborah Pankey

They battled beet-stained hands, hot grills, canned sardines and Twizzlers, but those ingredients did not get the best of Lori Wiktorek, Christine Murphy, Lori Motyka and Dan Rich.

These four cooks won their Round 2 recipe challenges and will head to the Cook of the Week Challenge Cook-off, and when the scores are tallied on Oct. 30 one of them will be named Cook of the Year and walk away with prizes valued at more than $2,200.

Wiktorek, a legal assistant from Aurora, edged past Jeff Zilch, a Fox River Grove businessman, when given beets, turkey legs, orange marmalade, havarti cheese and a grill to work with. Her grilled, beet-topped pizza and brined turkey legs got the best of Zilch's glazed legs and beet bites.

In the grilled swordfish challenge, contestants Murphy and Tina Garrett, of Des Plaines, both created kebabs, but Murphy's take pushed her to the goal line first.

A decision to combine sardines and chickpeas into a hummus-like spread for pizza narrowly pushed Motyka, a marketing director from West Chicago, ahead of South Elgin's Mike Baron and his raisin-studded polenta and pan-seared sardines.

In what I believe is the toughest challenge of the past three years Rich, Elgin's superintendent of public works, and Judy Monaco, a retiree from Glendale Heights, had to create sweet and savory party foods out of Twizzlers (you can thank the guys at Marquardt of Barrington for that!), almond butter, celery and phyllo (OK, the phyllo was my idea). Both turned in inventive, approachable recipes but there could only be one winner at it was Rich.

So on Oct. 30 these four finalists will compete against each other in a live cook-off in front of 400 or so people. The cooks will have one hour to prep, cook and plate a dish made with four mystery ingredients and a pantry of common items. A panel of judges, including 2012's Cook of the Year Michael Pennisi of Carpentersville will determine who gets crowned Cook of the Year 2013.

You can read what the judges had to say about the final recipes and find out who came out on top in fan favorite voting on Page 4. Keep reading to see what our finalists have to say about the competition up to this point.

Lori Motyka

What did you learn about yourself as a cook? I was surprised to learn that I don't enjoy cooking on demand. Cooking has always been my passion, way to relax and take care of my family, but knowing I had a deadline kind of changed all that. However, I love competition, so this was just kind of a new spin on cooking for me.

Did you discover any new ingredients along the way? I can't say that I discovered a new ingredient but I certainly learned new ways to use ingredients that I might not otherwise have chosen. I have set aside all preconceived notions about certain ingredients, so if I ever need to use up the elements of my pantry, I am good to go!

Is there a Round 1 mystery basket you're glad you didn't get? Not really. While I loved watching what the other cooks did with the ingredients, I, too, had fun imagining what I would have done with them.

Have you tried any of the other Challenge recipes? I've loved all the recipes but found the lime gelatin recipes especially creative. Life's been kind of crazy lately, but my plan is to try all of the recipes!

Christine Murphy

What did you learn about yourself during the contest? I learned a few things about myself while participating in the cooking challenge. I learned as a cook, I am motivated by the desire to have others enjoy what I prepare. By using my creativity to develop recipes for the Challenge, I found my desire to be innovative in other areas of my life expanded. I now find myself looking at things in new ways while adding some fun into my everyday routines. I was also surprised to find that while I am not naturally competitive, I wanted to win each challenge so that I could continue the fun of creating with food.

What new ingredient did you discover? I received ingredients of high quality, which resulted in some delicious entrees. When you start with great products, you will be rewarded with the results. I had never grilled lettuces before trying it for the tailgate challenge. And I would definitely cook swordfish again! I discovered the rewards of combining ingredients that may initially seem unlikely companions. All I have to do is to trust in the process while building layers of flavor until I have something that tastes delicious. Finding the balance in life and in cooking is always a challenge worth pursuing.

Is there a Round 1 mystery basket you're glad you didn't get? Ground lamb and sesame snack sticks and honey.

Are there any Round 1 recipes you've tried or plan to try? Mike Baron's Campanelle with Shrimp and Sweet peas in Lemon Cream Sauce with Garlic Parmesan Toast sounds really tasty!

Dan Rich

What did you learn about yourself during the contest? That I am a cook, not a chef. People have, over the course of years, referred to me as "chef." Not so much. I have a new found respect for those who are classically trained, who are able to slice, dice and julienne with flawless accuracy. Those who automatically know what flavors go together; those who understand because of their training how to work with Twizzlers, canned salmon and all of the rest of the mystery basket goodies without scratching their head or saying "What did Deb put in this basket?" I learned that I have a long way to go if I ever want to go beyond just playing in the kitchen, but that in terms of cooking or just experimenting in the kitchen I do pretty well.

What new ingredients or techniques did you discover? None really. I typically cook with fresh foods -- fruits, veggies and grains. With the exception of the Twizzlers none of the ingredients in the mystery baskets were new to my kitchen. Cooking with the Twizzlers was a bit of a kick. I still maintain that Twizzlers really aren't food and shouldn't count but I suspect that there is an entire market segment out there that may disagree.

Is there a Round 1 mystery basket you're glad you didn't get? Next to the canned salmon, no. There were individual ingredients that I wasn't crazy about, the lime Jell-O being a very good example. There were some really cool ingredients. The chops, beer, squash, and flank steak all would have been fun to play with.

Are there any Round 1 recipes you've tried or plan to try? I thought that several of them looked really good. Compliments to all of the cooks who have taken the time to battle through the baskets. I think that Tina's Twisted Tiramisu with the beer caramel sauce would be something that I would like to try when I get a little time. Her acorn squash ravioli looked pretty darned good as well.

Lori Wiktorek

What did you learn about yourself as a cook? I learned that I have so much more to learn about cooking. I thought I knew how to cook well, but with each recipe challenge, I realized that there are so many ingredients and cooking techniques that I haven't learned or tried yet. Seeing all the other cooks recipes and seeing what ingredients they put together makes me want to try as many new things as I can, with ingredients and cooking techniques.

Did you discover any new ingredients or techniques? I always wanted to try brining, and the turkey leg challenge was a good reason to try it. I looked at a lot of different brining recipes to see what they were like, and once I saw what the main components of brining are, I was able to come up with my own ideas for ingredients to come up with my own recipe.

Is there a Round 1 mystery basket you're glad you didn't get? I was glad I didn't get farro, I had never even heard of it before this challenge.

Are there any Round 1 recipes you've tried or plan to try? I plan to try the Campanelle with Shrimp and Sweet Peas in Lemon Cream Sauce and Parmesan Garlic Toast. I love shrimp and pasta and sweet peas, and all the other ingredients, so I think I'll like it a lot.

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