Meredith's Indian curry duo dish wows the judges

When Cook of the Week Challenge winner Leslie Meredith arrived at the Westin Chicago Northwest hotel ballroom for the Daily Herald's annual competition, she already had a lot on her plate.

The Friday before the event, she and her sister/sous chef, Maura Riordan, were attending their 79-year-old father's funeral. In October, Leslie was laid off from her job as a marketing executive.

Despite those challenges, Leslie wowed the judges with her flavor-packed Indian Curry Duo with Roti and Rice. In the words of the judges, the beef and sweet potato curry and cauliflower curry were "absolutely phenomenal," had "great textures" and reminded judge Suzy Singh, a research and development chef for NOW Foods, of "something you could find on the streets of India in a dhaba (food stall)."

Such high praise was welcome, but caused a minor case of "impostor syndrome," says Leslie, who says she has never made a hollandaise, doesn't cook much with meat and is not fluent in French cuisine. In fact, she only started cooking seriously two years ago when she began working from home.

"Don't tell anyone," she joked, "or they'll come and take the big spoon away," referring to the giant wooden spoon trophy awarded to each year's winner.

Despite her relatively recent entree into cooking, Leslie made smart choices in the heat of competition that led to success. For one, she chose a traditionally flavor-packed ethnic dish that is also "very forgiving. Curries are a great way to go because you don't have to worry about cooking it for an exact time, it doesn't burn easily and you can keep it warm without overcooking it."

She also credits her win with her ability to pivot when something unexpected arises.

"The roti were too thick initially," she said, "like hockey pucks. I rolled them out much thinner and it worked."

Likewise, when she and Maura realized that skhug sauce is made of chiles and cilantro, they decided to add it to the cauliflower curry at the end of cooking process as a fresh element instead of simmering it with the other ingredients, as planned.

To next year's competitors, Leslie recommends making "something you are excited about eating," particularly highly seasoned ethnic dishes that will light up the judges' palates, and being smart about incorporating the sponsors' ingredients, which are worth extra points. Every sponsor ingredient should enhance your dish, not be a "gimmick," she said.

As for her own future, Leslie is considering a pivot from marketing to expanding her School of Food ( cooking classes for kids, taking it from a very part-time pursuit to full-time career.

"It's partly about growing food, and part cooking," says Leslie, whose quarter-acre yard is packed with vegetable gardens.

"My philosophy is, you don't have to dumb it down for kids," she says. "They are so game for anything. One of my classes made a salad from root vegetables, stems, flowers, seeds and fruits, and yeah, they ate it."

  Leslie Meredith, second from right, reacts as her name is called making her winner of the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge. With her, from left, are finale winner at the Westin in Itasca on Monday evening. From left are finalists Lulu Chapa of Volo, Lisa Eberhahn of Mount Prospect, and Ann Wayne of Barrington. Patrick Kunzer/
  Meredith cooks during the hourlong competition with the help of her sous chef and sister, Maura Riordan, right, on her way to being selected as the Cook of the Week Challenge winner at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca. Patrick Kunzer/
  COWC finalist Leslie Meredith in her Arlington Heights home. Paul Valade/
  Finalist Leslie Meredith smiles after presenting her dish to the panel of judges. Patrick Kunzer/
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