After cooking with Twizzlers, Dan Rich figured nothing could throw him off his game.
Turns out the Elgin man was right.
When faced with skin-on chicken breasts, apples, microgreens and crystallized ginger, Rich put out a dish that bested his competition at the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge Final Four Cook-off and earned the title 2013 Cook of the Year.
The cook-off, held Oct. 30 at the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg, was the culmination of a 12-week culinary competition that started with 16 suburban home cooks. Through weekly mystery basket recipe challenges the field was whittled down to the four finalists who cooked at the event in front of a sold-out crowd of 400-plus supporters and food enthusiasts.
In the end it was Rich's mushroom-stuffed chicken breast accompanied by bruleed apple-plum compote that won over the panel of five judges and won Rich a Bosch dishwasher, a George Foreman Grill, a $500 giftcard to Devon Seafood, a $100 gift card to Woodfield Mall, a $100 gift card to e+o restaurant in Mount Prospect, a $400 set of chef knives from Edge of Belgravia and two tickets to America's Baking and Sweets Show and a chef's coat, lunch and classes from Harper College.
Those prizes, Rich says, will be donated to the Elgin Boys and Girls Club to support programs for the city's youths.
Now that a little time has passed, I asked them for their perspective on the cook-off.
What did you find most challenging about the cook-off? The most challenging element was the limited cooking equipment. No oven makes it really difficult; it was also hard to "hold" the dish after plating to try and keep it warm for the judges. There weren't any of the available ingredients that I couldn't use (after using Twizzlers, really?) but there were ingredients that I didn't feel that I could use in an hour. There were some great looking beets in the pantry that would have made a terrific salad, but cooking, peeling and cooling them in an hour without getting the entire prep area looking like a scene from "Friday the 13th" just wasn't going to happen.
How did your dish evolve over the course of the evening? Plan, plan, plan, develop a contingency and then be prepared to call a loud Manning-like audible. The stuffed chicken breast was a no-brainer; I knew that I wanted the chicken done to temperature so I wasn't serving chicken sashimi. Icky! Stuffing it was a nice way to keep it moist and full of flavor, and the skin-on was a very helpful touch. I wanted to stuff the apples with the grain but without an oven that was kind of out, so the Muzzie (compote) with the lovely crunchy "bruelee" topping seemed like a good option. And it was. I love the sweet/savory of the fruit, garlic and rosemary in the dish. The damn peas just about did me in. I wanted the bonus points, but they nearly cost me the challenge. Like a little kid, I knew better, but couldn't help myself.
What was it like cooking in front of a crowd? Crowd? Were there really other people at the event besides me? I remember asking someone for a glass of wine halfway through the event. Honestly, unless they were offering to stir or chop, it really didn't that much matter to me. I hope that everyone who attended had as much fun as I did.
Anything you would have done differently? Yup. The peas. I liked the judge's suggestion of making a gratin (I think I heard him correctly) and to be honest I kind of blew it there. It would have taken some of the richness from the cream and distributed it more evenly about the dish and added a bit of texture as well. I could have done a better job marrying the flavors of the mystery ingredients into the protein, as an example preparing an apple couscous stuffing with crystallized ginger and sautéed veggies for the chicken breast. Let's just say that it wouldn't have sucked. I was a bit afraid of over-apple-ing and gingering the plate. The Muzzie (ok, compote) was just killer, but should have been served with a big scoop of fresh whipped cream. Next time …
What did you find most challenging? I found the space constraints and low counter tops to be the most challenging part of the cook-off. I'm a very organized cook with everything in it's place and am spoiled by high counter tops in my kitchen. The ingredient selection was solid and could have been used in a variety of ways. The hard part was choosing the best one!
Did you go with your first idea for your dish? When I first heard that chicken was one of the ingredients, I immediately started thinking about how I could add flavor and color to the dish. Chicken is extremely neutral and as such a great carrier of flavor but it's also not very colorful, so I had to add some pizazz to the dish somehow. When cooking with chicken at home, often times I will cut a pocket into the breast and stuff it with something yummy; maybe sweet and savory, so that was my initial thought. Based upon the mystery items and the pantry items, I thought a traditional stuffing of onion, celery, garlic, red pepper, apples, bread crumbs and parmesan would be beautiful as well as add a lot of flavor to the chicken. I started timing the dish out, figuring I would need to have the chicken on the stove by 7:30 p.m. So I chopped the ingredients for the stuffing and got it sautéing on the cooktop and then finally opened up the chicken breasts and was dismayed to find out that they weren't thick enough to cut a pocket into for the stuffing. I walked away from them and kept working on the stuffing and the sweet potato mash while I thought about it some more. Time was moving quickly and my self-imposed 7:30 deadline was quickly approaching so I had to go back to the chicken and make a decision. I thought about just seasoning it, pan frying and serving the stuffing and the sweet potatoes on the side but that wasn't getting me where I wanted to go visually with this dish. So ... I grabbed my trusty rolling pin, placed the breasts inside a Ziploc bag and started pounding away. I pounded them thinly, seasoned them with a little salt and pepper and spread a large spoonful of the stuffing mixture on top. I then closed the breasts over the stuffing with toothpicks, seared them in my cast iron skillet and finished them off at a lower temp. When serving a large piece of poultry or beef at home, I generally slice it prior to serving because no one likes to see a big hunk of meat on their plate. It's also great for portion control. Adding the stuffing to the chicken breasts and then slicing them is a visually appealing way to serve this dish and then fanning the slices on top of the sweet potato mash ensures that you get a yummy taste of everything all in one bite. I always keep every ingredient in mind when creating a dish as the true interest to me lies in how these flavors will play with each other when consumed in one bite. No plates with dividers in our house and we have kids!
What was it like cooking in front of a crowd? Kind of energizing, actually. I was able to tune the crowd out when necessary but it was fun interacting with them, too. Everyone was so positive and supportive. Having a video camera aimed at my cooktop was a little disconcerting at first but once I got used to it, it was actually pretty cool to think that someone was videoing my creation!
Anything you would have done differently? I wouldn't have done anything differently with my dish or the way I managed the challenge. I am still extremely pleased with the way my dish turned out. It is something I would make at home again and again. I would, however, while it's not in my nature, promote myself and/or another organization a bit more throughout The Challenge if I were lucky enough to be part of it again.
How did your dish evolve as you were cooking? I used a sketch and three notecards to guide me through the process. Although I thought my plan was ambitious, to create three dishes including making a crepe, I figured I could always make changes along the way. Each dish was created in the moment with my sous chef doing the chopping, shredding and zesting while I cooked, measured and blended the ingredients at the stovetop. While I followed my original ideas, each dish was evolving as I changed the ratio of ingredients and seasonings.
What was it like cooking in front of a crowd? It was exhilarating to cook for a crowd. I was a little nervous, but I tried to just be myself. I began talking to the group in front of my station, dancing and interacting as much as I could while figuring out how to use the stove and keep all my plates spinning.
Anything you would have done differently? I wish I had identified my recipes with the unifying theme that I had chosen to use fresh ginger or crystalized ginger in each dish. The only other thing I would do differently to prepare for the challenge would be to have a plan to plate the dish. I know the presentation of my dish lacked garnish and any flare. I wish I had considered that before I started so it would have been planned out rather than an afterthought.
What did you find most challenging? My stove top didn't work with the shape of the frying pan and I couldn't get my chicken breasts cooking until the pan heated up. I wasted about 10 minutes trying to get it going, and panicked. The crystallized ginger was a little tricky, because my chicken flavor was more toward Italian, and I just couldn't figure out what to do with it. Near the end, I realized it would go perfect in my microgreen salad with the chopped bacon (sweet vs. savory) and it worked incredibly well.
How did your dish evolve? I changed my mind as they brought out more and more pantry items -- and in the end, my heart started racing as I became more and more confused about what I wanted to make, to the point where I almost couldn't think straight at all -- and that made it even worse. The microgreens salad recipe I made evolved at the very last few minutes because I spent too much time overthinking my first main dish recipe with the chicken breasts. I had some basics written down for the salad, but the last few ingredients came to me at the very last minutes -- and I surprised myself when I tasted it because it turned out even better than I had hoped.
What was it like cooking in front of a crowd. It was like being on "Chopped" but with everyone rushing up to your cook station at the word "go" -- the audience was standing just a few feet in front of us watching us cooking during the whole hour. When I looked up for the first time about 5 minutes in, I literally saw an ocean of faces standing right there in front of us. I could hear people commenting on each thing I was doing, some good, some a little critical, and I decided at that point to just not look up into the crowd at all until it was over -- and just concentrate on looking at the stove top while cooking and blocking everything else out except my wonderful sous chef -- who I couldn't have even made it without. You could feel the high energy in the room -- it was like electrifying -- insanely fun and exciting and a little nerve-wracking, all at the same time.
Anything you would have done differently? I would have waited until all of the pantry ingredients were set out before even deciding what to make. At first I thought I wanted to go with a fall harvest flavor, then I thought Mexican, no Asian. I got myself so confused that I could hardly think straight and in the end, I decided on Italian because it was "safe" for me -- and I decided to make something I already knew because I was in a panic -- and we were only minutes away from the start. The advice of "go with your gut instinct" completely fell out of my mind -- but they were right. I should have gone with a fall Harvest flavor. Deciding to make something I already knew how to make resulted in what I thought was a little bit of a boring entree -- so I wasn't happy with myself for changing my mind. I also should have sliced my chicken breasts before plating -- but literally ran out of time down to the last second -- barely getting everything on my plate without running out of time -- just like you see on TV. In the beginning, I told myself "I'm not going to let it come down to the last minute for plating" and it happened, just like you see on TV where you find out that you only have 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and then all of a sudden hearing the countdown from 10 seconds! I literally got my last thing on the plates at 1 second remaining!