At the call "begin!" John Hampson of Antioch ran with cool efficiency to the Daily Herald "open pantry" with a large bowl, while his sous chef, wife Chandra, placed two saucepans of water to boil. The Cook of the Year competition was on.
An hour earlier, the secret ingredients had been announced: pork tenderloin, barley, kale and dark chocolate.
"This should be interesting," confided his wife, "our son has celiac disease, so John has never cooked barley -- we've never even had it in the house!"
Because this was the night of the sixth game of the World Series, John cooked with one eye on the game being shown on two large screens at the site of the finale, a meeting hall at Itasca's Westin Chicago Northwest hotel.
Hampson and his wife worked quickly within the friendly confines of their station, occasionally aided by son Davis, "Dad, the water!" and daughter Chloe Noel, who was happy to dash across the room in search of a missing ingredient.
"Dad is the cook and Mom is the baker," said Davis, adding that his younger sister is also into cooking; she had lent one her knives to her dad for the occasion.
Once given the ingredients, John decided to make a roulade. He sliced the tenderloin open, pounded it, rubbed it with paprika, salt, pepper and cayenne, and then made a filling with the barley and kale, adding bacon, garlic, potatoes and portobello mushrooms.
"I always look for those layers of flavor," he explained. Once rolled, tied and sautéed, the slices were placed on a bed of a root vegetable mash, creamy with butter, sour cream and heavy cream. Another layer of flavor was added with a chocolate and bourbon sauce, made smooth with butter and hit with a pinch of cayenne. The final touch, from this cook who loves to use fresh herbs, was a sprinkling of chopped watercress.
Observers commented on the delicious smells coming from his station, and one woman watching John cook said under her breath, "I'd like to have him in my kitchen …"
More than 350 people, many friends and relatives of the four finalists, came to watch the cooking competition unfold, much like the World Series game being played in the background.
While Hampson waited for the judges to sample dishes made by the three competitors before him, John tasted a corner of the roulade that was left behind.
"This is actually very good!" he said with a smile.
The judges agreed. One of the judges called it "a wonderful balance of sweet and savory -- a perfect dish." Another simply called it "crave-able."
"I'm just impressed we didn't run out of time!" laughed wife and sous chef Chandra. When John was pronounced the winner, his family gathered around with hugs and congratulations, though a few, including John, turned to the screen occasionally to see what was happening with the Cubs.
There was more than one winner that night.