Hundreds of people, more than 20 vendors and the final four contestants of the Cook of the Week Challenge flocked to the Westin Chicago Northwest on Monday, Nov. 13, for the final leg of the competition -- a live cooking challenge.
From the moment guests entered the hotel lobby, their taste buds were buzzing as they enjoyed delicious dinner options that ranged from pasta to falafel and dozens of vendor samples that lined three of the ballroom's four walls.
While guests meandered around the room, sampling everything from shrimp ceviche shooters to Bundt cakes, the finalists took center stage and whipped up their latest creations for the judging panel.
Darla Pitts, 41, of Chicago; Ben Blake, 26, of Winfield; Elizabeth Schuttler, 49, of Inverness; and Mark Clemens, 64, of Elgin had one hour to prepare a dish using five secret ingredients chosen by sponsors and items from a small pantry. Secret ingredients included Beef Teres Major (Westin Chicago Northwest), Garlic and Mushroom Q Cups (NOW Foods), Traditional Refried Beans (Goya Foods Inc.), hard apple cider (Binny's Beverage Depot), and pancetta (Tony's Fresh Market).
At the end of the challenge, Schuttler's beef roulade stuffed with refried beans, goat cheese, kale and quinoa reigned supreme. Her large fan section erupted in cheers when Schuttler's name was announced. She was overjoyed with her win.
"It's absolutely surreal," Schuttler said.
Mark Clemens of Elgin, who was a finalist in the inaugural Cook of the Week Challenge in 2011, returned to the kitchen this year with a large support team cheering him on. They donned T-shirts with the slogan "Make Food, Not War," a saying Clemens' son, Casey, said his father has loved since he first saw it on a chalkboard sign in front of a restaurant in Germany several years ago. Casey said his father has always loved to cook. He joked that if four people come to dinner, Mark will make enough food for at least 10. Casey said his dad plans his weeks around what he's going to make the family for Sunday dinner.
"I get up every day thinking about what I'm going to make that day," said Mark, whose marinated flash-sautéed beef shoulder with rendered pancetta was reviewed favorably by the judges.
Television screens broadcast an aerial view of the chefs cooking their ingredients on Thermador Induction cooktops provided by Novak and Parker Home Appliance in Mount Prospect. While they worked, guests were treated to four demonstrations by skilled chefs based in the Chicago area. Monique Costello, owner and culinary nutrition expert at Happy Eats Healthy, kicked the evening off by showing the audience how to make a garlic cashew cheese dip. Watching people interact with food and experiment with new recipes is what she likes most about the challenge.
"Food is the base of everything we do," said Costello. "It brings all of us together. It's how we celebrate all of our holidays and we can do it in a healthier manner without feeling like we have to give up all of that fun. For me, watching other people learn how to cook and be comfortable in the kitchen is really what it's all about."
"Iron Chef America" judge Mario Rizzotti prepared a Penne with Pumpkin, Bacon and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar for the crowd. R&D Corporate Chef at NOW Foods, Suzy Singh, showed guests how to prepare Shrimp and Shitake Mushroom Cakes in less than 10 minutes. Ahmed Azizy, executive chef at the Westin Chicago Northwest, demonstrated how to make an herb-crusted Chilean sea bass with a mango cream sauce.
Attendees tasted each dish and left with copies of the recipes to try at home. Rizzotti, Singh and Azizy all served as judges during the finale alongside last year's winner, John Hampson; Becky Wait, wine manager at Binny's Beverage Depot; and Jimmy Nicolau, director of Midwest sales at Grecian Delight Foods.
Throughout the night, guests bid on 15 raffle prizes, including a wine basket donated by Lynfred Winery and Daily Herald Media Group, a golfer's package donated by Schaumburg Park District and Ala Carte Entertainment, and a barbecue and beer package donated by Sweet Baby Ray's and Tony's Fresh Market. All proceeds from the raffle went to the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
In between bidding on prizes and watching cooking demonstrations, event attendees tasted an assortment of savory and sweet samples from multiple vendor booths. Heather Woods of Lombard and Heidi Billman of Medinah came to support Schuttler, but were also able to sample different vendors' creations. They enjoyed tasting Nothing Bundt Cakes and desserts from Seasons 52, a Schaumburg restaurant.
The festive atmosphere pushed the finalists along as they raced to complete their delicious dishes. While it's clear all the contestants and vendors love to cook, the challenge is about more than only creating a new recipe. As Costello said, cooking and food are about creating community and bringing people together.
"We brought a lot of people together. Our neighbors, our work family, our family -- everybody was just cheering," said Schuttler. "It was awesome."