On Oct. 26, we'll announce the four Cook of the Week Challenge finalists who will meet in a live cook-off Nov. 1 at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca. In Challenge 9, the judges put Michael Ek's dish just ahead of Daniel Imburgia's efforts. In Challenge 10, John Hampson's scores were just out of reach of Greg Zielinski's.
In the first matchup in Round 2, cooks Daniel Imburgia of Elk Grove Village and Michael Ek of Bartlett were given Absolut Vodka, courtesy of Binny's Beverage Depot; celery root, courtesy of the Westin Chicago Northwest; Cornish game hens; and farro as their secret ingredients for Challenge 9.
Proving that execution counts as much as looks, all three judges thought Daniel Imburgia's Cornish hen lolling in broth looked intriguing. However, they wondered about the ability to actually eat it.
"The presentation has the right idea, but it would be difficult to eat, so maybe breaking the bird down would be better," suggested judge Peter Menteer, Head Chef at Westin Itasca.
The presentation puzzled Massimo Gaffo, Chef Consultant for Moretti's & Ala Carte Special Events Culinary Team, who said the hen seemed to be a garnish and not the focal point of the dish.
The sensory overload of vegetables and chicken roasting in the oven in a cast iron skillet made Judge Penny Kazmier hungry, and she loved the infused vodka. "The next time you try farro you may want to consider cooking it in chicken broth with a few herbs and diced vegetables to add even yet more flavor," the 2011 Cook of the Week winner recommended.
Gaffo thought the soup looked beautiful -- "Good color, very aromatic and the colors of the vegetables brought out the dish," but he yearned for some heat via sambal or chili paste. He saw a well thought-out flavor direction and welcomed the use of lemon and thyme on the aromatic front.
Menteer championed the trendy ramen/pho idea with fresh radish, tamari and bok choy, but encouraged the addition of spices or hot pepper, too. "Overall, it was very creative but needs some more thought on what direction the dish is going," he explained.
Gaffo who also serves as Executive Chef R & D at Mama's Boy Chicago thought Michael Ek's glaze was a good idea to "bring a nice flavor to the hen and allow the gaminess to come through."
Penny Kazmier's winning dish in the 2011 Cook of the Week Challenge was a stuffed pork tenderloin with root beer adobo glaze, so it's not surprising that Ek's glaze made her see stars, too.
Chef Menteer added that Ek really worked the ingredients to a delicious end and the hen simply looked awesome.
"Marinating the day before enables great flavor and caramelization on the grill, too," he said.
Kazmier thought he used the celery root and farro creatively.
"Soaking the celery root in it overnight was a good idea and I wonder if using some of the soaking liquid while cooking the farro or stir fry would have added good flavor," she speculated.
Gaffo said, "Everything was utilized in a productive manner and they could be cross utilized such as dark meat pulled and used in the farro."
Although both chef judges wished for more creativity in plate presentation and garnish, Ek's recipe eked by with a W in round two.
In Challenge 10, John Hampson of Antioch and Greg Zielinski of Arlington Heights found baba ghanouj, courtesy of Grecian Delight; corn tortillas, courtesy of Valli Produce; lamb chops and bell peppers.
"This is a great fall dish if executed properly," Westin Itasca Head Chef Peter Menteer determined about Greg Zielinski's Easy Braised Lamb Chops, "and the cook's use of ingredients seems good -- just remember to season all meat before it hits the pan and be sure to notate this in your recipe."
Judge Jimmy Nicolau of Grecian Delight, A Pure Mediterranean Foods Company, thought Zielinski executed well overall but reminded him that a contestant could make more than one item from the ingredients. "For example, use the corn tortillas to make a dough then cornbread to go with the stew. This type of out of the box thinking will achieve extra points."
Bill Hicks, winner of last year's Cook of the Week Challenge admired how Zielinski used three of the ingredients, his understanding of how to cook vegetables and the choice of shoulder lamb chops for fat content, which made a great braise. "Although the lamb itself was delicious," Hicks said, "the baba ghanouj might have been better employed in a side dish."
Hick's gave John Hampson's Sunday Lamb Ragout with Crispy Baba Ghanouj Polenta and Red Pepper Coulis high marks for a truly inspired recipe. "Combining the baba ghanouj with polenta was a stroke of genius," he noted, "and it added some character to the polenta, making it an interesting component to the ﬁnished dish. The lamb ragout was a rich-ﬂavored stew and made an excellent foil to the polenta. The coulis was the crowning touch."
Chef Menteer liked Hampson's plate presentation but thought doing a coulis on top of a ragout could be overkill of two similar sauces that get lost in each other. Nonetheless, the Westin Chef said, "These are all the right elements for this to taste awesome."
Hicks found the ﬁnal plating appealing for "color, a variety of shape and texture, and ﬁnishing with feta cheese and parsley added a nice touch" and he called it an "outstanding dish."
Grecian Delight's Nicolau loved how Hampson used his ingredients creatively and can't wait to see what's next from this contestant. He'll have that opportunity as John Hampson moves to the next round.
For full contest coverage, visit www.dailyherald.com/lifestyle/food/cook-of-the-week-challenge/ or like us on Facebook.com/CookoftheWeek.