16 home cooks step up to plate for Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge
Foodies, home cooks and recipe junkies -- hold onto your aprons. It's time to launch the sixth annual Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge. This year's contestants hail from Lombard to Cary and towns in between. Cooks range in age from 19 to 65 and their occupations are as varied as well. One thing they all have in common is a love of cooking.
The annual Sweet 16-style competition unfolds with home cooks facing each other in one-on-one recipe challenges over the next eight weeks. Each cook will be supplied with a mystery basket of secret ingredients they will need to develop into an original recipe. Competitors may also be limited in the amounts of additional items, dollars spent or cooking method. Those cooks who move on to Round 2 will have another chance to make magic from new matchups and new mystery ingredients.
These 16 contestants have been selected from dozens of applicants. They stand ready with their mixers, knives and favorite pots and pans and a dream of hoisting the giant spoon at the cook-off finale in November.
Each week, a panel of judges will review their carefully crafted recipes. The judges will select one winner from each challenge based on use of ingredients, creativity and perceived taste and appearance. The judges panel this year includes the five previous winners -- Penny Kazmier, Michael Pennisi, Dan Rich, Jamie Andrade and Bill Hicks -- celebrity chefs, representatives from some of the contest sponsors and other food industry professionals.
And our 16 cooks aren't the only ones vying for prizes. Check out Cook of the Week Challenge 2016 coverage at dailyherald.com to vote for your favorite recipes. Each week we will randomly draw a voter to win such prizes as T-shirts for Hunger in Action Month, dining and movie gift cards, products from sponsors, cookbooks and more.
As for our home cook challengers, four finalists will compete in the live cook-off Nov. 1 at the Westin Northwest Chicago in Itasca. The victor will receive a prize package valued at more than $1,500. They will own bragging rights, a giant spoon and title of the 2016 Daily Herald Cook of the Year.
You can follow the contest each Wednesday her in Food and at dailyherald.com/lifestyle/food/cookchallenge. Like us on Facebook/CookoftheWeek to learn more about the cooks, the sponsors and updates on how you can be part of the audience for the Nov. 1 finale.
41, Wood Dale
Winery marketing director
As a child, Christina Anderson-Heller spent hours watching and helping her farm-raised mother make fresh noodles for homemade chicken "butterball" soup, pickle vegetables from their own garden and make every meal from scratch. "In fact, it wasn't until my sixth-grade home economics class that I learned there were such things as canned biscuits," the Wood Dale resident lets on. The kitchen adventurous cook likes hunting for fresh ingredients with BFF, Vicki, inventing new recipes and entertaining. She's especially eager to use seasonal vegetables and Mexican spices so don't be surprised when she transforms late summer corn into fresh corn salads, shrimp and corn soup and even corn ice cream.
Farm-to-table may be a trendy restaurant term but Anderson-Heller was raised by a farmer's daughter so she's inspired by Chicago chefs who work with local farms and purveyors to find the ultimate in fresh. Look for touches of her favorite ingredients, citrus, closely followed by fresh herbs, in her own creations to brighten and enhance flavor.
She's also a huge lover of puns and one of her all-time favorite appetizers that she brought to a party were Australian style barbecued shrimp which were carefully placed on an actual Barbie doll … shrimp on the Barbie.
-- Jacky Runice
46, Lake Villa
When you think firefighters and food, the scents of chili and stew wafting in the firehouse might come to mind, but firefighter/paramedic Craig Brannan has cooked meals that range from Polynesian to British. Although the Lake Villa resident can always recall an interest in cooking and baking, interest shifted to passion once ensconced at the firehouse's 24-hour duty schedule with plenty of opportunity to cook meals for the day. Brennan counts firehouse chefs, trial and error, and just diving into great recipes as his teachers.
The avid big game hunter and fisherman loves cooking wild game and fish, and Cajun cuisine is one of his favorite styles to cook. He spent days in Louisiana learning historic Cajun recipes and techniques from a 100 percent Cajun cook, "red beans and rice, shrimp étouffée, chicken Creole, and the most amazing gumbo I have ever had in my life," Brannan beams. "It took almost an hour just to make the roux, which is the base of any authentic gumbo." It's no wonder he claims Emeril Lagasse as one of his inspirations, but the old-timers at the firehouse, as well as his friend, Puerto Rican chef/restaurateur Willo Benet, have helped enlighten his palate. Garlic is one of his favorite ingredients and he is wont to spread roasted elephant garlic on freshly baked French bread served with some chevre and a glass of sauvignon blanc.
-- Jacky Runice
34, Hoffman Estates
High school science teacher
Christine Christian admits it without hesitation. She's a "total nerd" about cooking, poring over cookbooks and spending hours watching cooking shows like "Chopped." Her compulsion probably began in her youth when she spent tons of time in the kitchen cooking with her parents and because her father's family is Italian, Christian has a propensity for that cuisine's flavors and comfort inducing qualities.
The Hoffman Estates mother also likes to experiment with traditional American dishes and align them to her family's taste. "For instance, my husband doesn't like mayo, so I've tried to create dishes without mayo so that we can have a his and hers version, like potato salad, and coleslaw. Working with a wide range of flavor profiles has resulted in her kids' affinity for Asian and Indian food, too. "My kids love any kind of stir fry, spring rolls, anything with rice or noodles. My oldest loves pho and both my girls like curry, since I've been cooking with turmeric, curry and garam masala for a while now."
Christian's favorite ingredients aren't sea urchin foam or carrot dust, but rather eggs, bacon and cheese as well as the bounty gathered in her late-summer garden. Like all creative home cooks, necessity sparks innovation. "I also have a family, so grocery bills can be expensive," she explained. "I like to see what is fresh and on sale at the grocery store and that drives a lot of what I make."
-- Jacky Runice
Retired ER nurse
A mom with four children and a retired ER nurse, Chris Copeland became a more creative cook because she believed that mealtime shouldn't be boring. "I just started making things up and wouldn't let my family in the kitchen or know what was in food until after meals," she revealed. Something certainly clicked because she marched in to Elgin Community College for culinary school and graduated in 2005 with a degree in restaurant management.
Copeland is ardent about expanding her soup and sauce repertoire but is ready for any culinary challenge. Watch out, though. She likes to hide ingredients that people say they don't like and they never know what's lurking in the dish that makes it so tasty. Miso is one of her favorites with which to experiment, but the Elgin resident thinks that her imagination is actually her best tool. "I like to experiment with flavors and tastes," she admits, "and my theory is if I like the taste of something, it should go together with other things I like."
She counts a culinary school instructor, Chef Zema, as her greatest inspiration. "His passion for the culinary arts was infectious."
-- Jacky Runice
Can you think of another pastime that offers creativity, stress relief, nutrition, joy, love and great aromas? Neither can Tanya Cruz-Hernandez who adores every aspect of cooking from creating a menu to grocery shopping (which is her therapy) and finally cooking. "I just get into a zone and it brings me great joy to put love on a plate," Cruz-Hernandez said, "and feeding my friends and family is what I was meant to do."
She's mimicking her parents who cooked up a storm and considered sharing the food they made as a way to show they cared. The Lombard resident fell in love with trying new things and seeing people happy with what she created. Her favorite dish from childhood has to be the batches and batches of warm flour tortillas handmade by her grandfather, one of the first things she also recalls making alongside her mother. "As a child I can remember the smells coming from his kitchen and how he'd always send us home with a batch for the road." Although her mother's refried beans place a close second and her recipe is still prepared by Tanya, her three sisters and Tanya's son who now knows the prep and loves them.
In addition to Mexican, she likes to experiment with Italian flavors because both cuisines "just bring out fun, music and cocktails." And if you find yourself asking what that special ingredient is that she has added to make the flavor of the chicken or veg pop -- surprise -- it's a smidge of bacon fat.
-- Jacky Runice
When Bartlett's Michael Ek has an urge to try something new, he finds a restaurant and never hesitates to ask how the kitchen put that steaming plate of deliciousness together. Then, it's time for at-home attempts of his current favorite -- Asian flavors. "Stir fry was my first regular dish at home, with pork, chicken and sirloin being the main protein," he explained, "and I love Asian spices and sauces, Thai and Indian dishes. I seem to order curry very often." Which makes sense because his favored ingredient is any type of pepper, sweet or hot, used raw, roasted or pickled. "Blend them up in a sauce, dice them up, stuff them, use them in a side; I love spice, and hot peppers come in different heat levels and affect the palate in different ways. Also, most peppers have vibrant colors, and can be part of a great presentation," he said.
Ek is grateful that his mother's interest in food prompted her to go beyond the basic dinner of the 1960s and '70s -- pot roast, potatoes and a vegetable. "When I was about 10 years old, around 1970, my mother had a dinner party and she put out a taco bar. It was amazing, building your own meal, extra meat, less tomatoes, whatever you liked," he recalled. Another clear inspiration was watching a very young Charlie Trotter in Kitchen Sessions, a television show on PBS in the late 1990s. "Haute cuisine or fine dining was unknown to me," Ek said. "I remember watching Charlie make duck confit and being amazed."
-- Jacky Runice
When Teresa Fiocchi was in high school, she participated in a student-run restaurant that fed teachers and staff once a week. She learned to plan menus, develop recipes, grocery shop, cook and serve meals and fell head over heels in love with cooking.
In her early 20s, before one could look up a recipe in a matter of seconds on the internet or the Food Network even existed, the Mundelein resident found herself obsessed with cookbooks, spending hours at the library and in book stores. Among her 100 cookbooks, Fiocchi's favorites are the ones she inherited or received as gifts. "I love the worn edges or stained pages reflecting someone's favorite recipe and the handwritten notes in the margins and its always special to find a handwritten recipe card tucked in as a bookmark," she noted.
Cooking dinner for her family is a joyous process of connection bringing everyone to the table at day's end for sharing food as well as the day's experiences. More often than not, that's pasta bubbling on her stove because she appreciates its versatility. "I love to make various types of homemade pastas that I store in the freezer, but my pantry is also stocked with all shapes of dried pasta, too. It's a simple ingredient that paired with the right ingredients can be dressed up for a fancy meal, dressed down for a simple meal, but always is an ingredient that puts dinner on the table very quickly!"
-- Jacky Runice
Minister of worship and music
Necessity being the mother of invention, Martha Garmon and her sister were expected to have dinner on the table when their parents got home from work so she learned a lot by trial and error. "My sister still likes to remind me of the time I tried to make a cheesecake in our new microwave, she explains, "and I set the timer for forty minutes and asked my mother to take it out when the timer went off. Needless to say my cheesecake became a toy for the dog as it came out hard as a rock!"
The Palatine resident adores taking cooking classes, especially when she and her husband travel. They spent a week in Italy cooking in a castle and hope to return next year to go truffle hunting. You'll find her making all kinds of dishes in two cast iron skillets that belonged to her grandmother and she's keen on "pantry cooking" -- taking things out of the refrigerator and waiting for inspiration to hit.
Garmon calls herself a recovering cookbook junkie and a "misplaced Texan" leaning toward southern flavors. She watches cooking shows like they're sporting events cheering for contestants and coaching enthusiastically from her living room chair. Favorite ingredient? "Just one?" she laments. "Cilantro, peppers, garlic, wine, butter ... I'm getting hungry already!"
-- Jacky Runice
Bank vice president
John Hampson still remembers the first dinner he made for his family -- pan fried, under seasoned, leathery pork chops, burned Brussels sprouts and still hard white rice -- but he was only 10 years old and the epic dinner fail did not deter him. "Fast forward to my late twenties and I worked as a manager for a local restaurant chain where I spent a ton of time in the kitchen with two classically trained chefs," he explained. "They in their own way taught me the art, science, and technique of cooking."
Hampson doesn't subscribe to a specific cuisine, loving all styles, techniques and flavors whether Asian, Latin, French, Italian, or just flat out smoky barbecue. He will, however, use garlic often in all kinds of cookery.
His inspiration launched with the weekend television cooking block with chefs such as Julia Child, Jeff Smith and Justin Wilson. "While others were outside playing, I would spend my Saturday afternoons inside watching cooking shows," he admitted. "Also, I am a sucker for the bibles of the culinary world having read cover-to-cover, Child, Larousse, CIA (The Professional Chef), and McGee." Hampson considers Aaron Franklin a flat out rock star of the culinary world, too. His son suffers from Celiac disease so he has learned to convert just about everything to accommodate a gluten-free diet and he counts the family as his best critics.
-- Jacky Runice
32, Elk Grove Village
Daniel Imburgia can still conjure the scent of his mother's nightly meals and his dad's Sunday gravy (that authentic pasta sauce made with neck bones) bubbling on the stove. The self-taught cook has spent countless hours with his nose in cookbooks, jumping at the opportunity to jaw about food and cooking with like-minded food lovers.
His mission is to transform food someone never liked or just never wanted to try and prepare it in a way that changes their whole world. "I've turned absolute seafood haters into crab leg munching salmon stuffing nuts," he says, as well as changing veg-haters into complete converts who now fill a plate with asparagus.
It's hard to keep a jar of Creole seasoning full around Imburgia because he has loved spicy food since an uncle introduced him to incendiary peppers as a kid. "I remember crying the first time I ate a little red sport pepper out of the garden, then 10 minutes later I came back and said, 'give me another one!' " Whether cooking for a crowd or a small family get-together, he loves the whole celebration of the table. "Food is a beautiful part of life, and it really does bring people together. When I cook, I don't think of it as just serving the crowd, I really do think of it as creating a captivating new memory."
-- Jacky Runice
61, North Barrington
A large Italian, Catholic family, with a grandmother living in the house and the other right next door, set the cooking stage for Cara Kretz. The eldest of eight kids, she watched and helped her mother and grandmothers prepare meals for a crowd. It's easy to see why Kretz loves to plan menus, prepare a buffet or elaborate multicourse meals for parties. "For example, Christmas Eve 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' dinner is a tradition in our family and involves five courses and takes about three hours," the North Barrington cook explains.
Although she owns many, the cookbook she refers to most often is her mother's 1973 copy of The New Antoinette Pope School Cook Book. "The Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery is a legend in Chicago," she explained. "They were Italian and French chefs whose school on Michigan Avenue taught generations of Chicagoans how to cook. They also had a TV show in the '50s and wrote cookbooks. They became famous before Julia Child!"
Give her a nice wedge of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated, and Kretz will commence to dress up recipes such as pasta, soup, bread, crust it on steaks, or even baked alone as a cheese snack chip. "Of course everyone knows that it is a sin to pair Parmesan cheese with fish. I don't know why. Just don't do it."
-- Jacky Runice
Works in corporate environmental health and safety
Amanda Landers learned her way around a microplane and mandoline from such expert chef instructors as Tony Gargano, Miguel Rangel, Bill Reichman and Paul Guerrero at Cooking Skills Academy in Itasca. Traveling and browsing her burgeoning library of cookbooks takes up a chunk of her spare time. "I have a wonderful and terrible habit of buying too many books, especially cookbooks," the Kildeer resident says. When traveling, she leaves enough room in her luggage to cradle her addiction to scooping up regional cookbooks. And since she added passport stamps from Austria, Bulgaria, Turks and Caicos, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Germany in the last year alone, her arsenal of international dishes is growing. She travels for work, stacks up frequent flier and hotel points and uses her three weeks of vacation time to visit exotic places and sample local cuisine.
Since earning her master's degree in work environment in 2012, Landers has been experimenting with pasta sauces, tacos, casseroles, stir fries and interesting riffs on traditional holiday dishes. Her favorite ingredients include garlic, cheese, hot peppers, olive oil and anchovies and she counts her own two eyes as her greatest culinary inspiration. "I've been told many times that they're bigger than my stomach, but they're what keep me passionate about learning how to cook new recipes and trying unique dishes when I'm traveling," she says. "When I see something that looks really good, I'm inspired to do some research and make it myself!"
-- Jacky Runice
35, Mount Prospect
Food memory is a powerful thing and the aromas of garlic and green mangoes takes Hazel Oreluk straight back to childhood when her paternal grandma, Silvestra, showed her how to cook Filipino dishes. For the uninitiated, Filipino food is a unique blend of European and Asian cuisines. While most of us are munching a muffin, Filipino breakfast can be a feast of steamed white rice. a protein like scrambled eggs, Spam, Filipino hot dog or dried fish plus fruit. "Garlic fried rice can also be served with longanisa (Filipino sausage), sunny-side up eggs, tomato slices and fruit. The whole combo is known as 'ongsilog.'"
As a working mom, Oreluk doesn't have time for complicated dishes so she prefers cooking fish, chicken or rice that can be done within an hour or less. Whatever the Mount Prospect mom is making, she thinks bell peppers give that extra "umph" that some dishes need whether a stir fry, sandwich, fajitas, pasta, pizza, curries or stews. She recalls her grandma finely chopping green bell peppers mixed with shrimp paste and using it as a dip for sour green mangoes. "My mouth is watering just thinking about this," Oreluk said.
In addition to grandma, Oreluk admires Martha Stewart calling the maven "the quintessential chef I aspire to be although I am light years behind in technique and knowledge" and Chef Rachel Khoo who has a travel and cooking show that guides viewers through making delicious food using easy-to-find ingredients and with minimal kitchen gadgets.
-- Jacky Runice
Cary resident, Sylvia Schafer, is thankful she was raised in a family where both of her parents enjoyed cooking even though she wasn't an eager cooking participant as a little tyke. Like all kids, she learned by example, watching both of them make meals. "Nothing beats home-cooking and it was natural to want to continue the tradition of family dinners once I had a family of my own," she remarked.
Her fabulous kitchen is courtesy of her home remodeler hubby who designed and built an enviable cooking space and Schafer owes part of her propensity to cook to her love of that kitchen. Aromas of Cuban, Mexican and Asian dishes emanate from the space and the 4-foot sink and food prep station helps to make cooking both enjoyable and easy for cleanup.
Schafer finds the scent of onions, celery and pepper cooking together ambrosial reminding her of Thanksgiving dinners and some of her mom's best dishes. "I also love cinnamon and chocolate in spicier dishes, just to add a hint of sweetness," she revealed.
She takes the time to watch some cooking programs on television, like Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, but her true inspiration is her mom. "From the best homemade pies to her homemade biscuits and gravy, she is the one that inspired me to cook. I also feed off of my family's satisfaction and praise, so the more they give me the thumbs-up, the more I want to try!"
-- Jacky Runice
Alexandra Zades' mom never failed to cook three meals a day for everyone in the family and she taught her children early on about the importance of cooking. "If it wasn't for my mom then I would be relying on ramen noodles for my meals like any other college student out there," Zades said. Her earliest culinary memories are of learning to make pizzelles with her grandmother's powder-sugared hands guiding hers over the hot pizzelle press. The Schaumburg resident owes her great satisfaction of cooking and feeding others to her Greek and Italian family.
What does she love to cook? "I know, of course, the Greek girl says lamb!" she laughed. But Zades is also keen on cauliflower because of its versatility. "It's a vegetable that can be roasted, mashed, riced- I mean what can it not do really? You can even bake with the darn thing! In my house I cook with a lot of vegetables so it's important for me to get creative and to trick my dad into thinking he's eating rice when really it's cauliflower!"
Zades' mother is definitely her inspiration in the kitchen. "Carol Zades is pretty much my cooking guardian angel ... but in the unlikely event that (Chef) Marcus Samuelsson is reading this, then I would have to break my mom's heart and say that he is my inspiration."
-- Jacky Runice
60, Arlington Heights
Greg Zielinski always dabbled in the kitchen since he married Julie 33 years ago and when their daughter left for college, his wife hung up her skillet and said he better pitch in and start cooking more. Armed with a subscription to Gourmet magazine and episodes of America's Test Kitchen, the Food Channel and Alton Brown, he realized that he really enjoyed the whole cooking process -- the prep, cooking, making alterations and serving his best effort. Cooking inspirations? I am old-school through new-school inspired. His inspiration hearkens back to Julia Child and Graham Kerr to Giada De Laurentis and Bobby Flay. "Back in the day chefs were creating recipes on taste and following classic techniques, now the chefs are incorporating cooking science to make recipes taste great," he explained.
If the Arlington Heights man had his druthers, he'd go with creating one pot meals and casseroles. "I like vegetables, protein, a carb and sauce layered in flavor in one pot or slow cooker," he explained. He often preps at 6:30 a.m., then gets elements into the slow cooker, handles sales appointments, and dinner is done upon his return. On weekends, Zielinski is grilling steaks, ribs, salmon, marinated vegetables, corn and he especially adores vegetables adding onions, peppers and mushrooms, zucchini or yellow squash to marinara sauce even though it's not traditional.
"I find cooking relaxing," he said. "Growing up, my mom was an excellent cook and baker and I grew up on great tasting food. So, through memory, watching, reading, Googling and practicing, I became a pretty good cook."
-- Jacky Runice