Meet the home cooks in the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019
Welcome back for the ninth annual Cook of the Week Challenge. Today, you'll meet the eight home cooks and learn a little about them such as their favorite ingredients, preferred kitchen tools and why they wanted to join the competition.
Here's how it works: Challenges run from Oct. 9 to Oct. 30.
Cooks receive a bag of special ingredients, some from the contest's sponsors, from which they must craft their dishes. They'll present their recipes to our guest judges each week, and scoring is evenly distributed between the following criteria: use of ingredients, creativity, ease of preparation and perceived taste. After the scores are totaled, one cook will be eliminated each of the four weeks. That will leave four contestants to head into the live cook-off finale on Nov. 11.
And for that big event, you are all invited.
In the meanwhile, you can follow the contest each Wednesday here in Food and at dailyherald.com/lifestyle/food/cook-of-the-week-challenge. Photographs of the entries and full recipes will appear online. Like us on Facebook/CookoftheWeek or follow on Twitter or Instagram to learn more about the cooks, the sponsors and how you can be part of the audience for the finale.
The eight cooks we introduce today were chosen from dozens of applications and shared recipes. They're all home cooks, with a love of food and getting dinner on the table on busy weeknights. Their ages range from 25 to 62, and they hail from all over the suburbs.
Let's meet the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019 cooks.
Will the fact that Rob Benes has a Culinary Arts degree and is a Content Strategy professional for the food service/hospitality industry help him in the Cook of the Week challenge?
Only the weeks ahead will tell, however, he is sure that his love for cookery comes from his Czechoslovakian grandmother, Marie, who was always busy in her kitchen cooking or baking delights from the old country.
"She always cooked from scratch and rarely, if ever, followed a written recipe," the 55-year-old said. "I guess it's in my DNA."
He was crazy about her traditional Czech sweet bread made during the holidays called houska, which he makes, too. "My baking record is 45 houska during one marathon Christmas baking season. I give them to neighbors and friends."
Then there was granny's Svickova -- braised beef served with scratch-made bread dumplings and sweet-sour cream sauce. Benes likes to cook with farm-raised whole chicken "because it's a blank canvass that can take on so many different flavors."
The Glen Ellyn resident does lots of grilling and works with fresh veggies and salads during the warmer months, and turns to braise root vegetables and baking when the chill sets in.
"I also shop at different stores. I go to a butcher in Wheaton for meats; my garden for vegetables; specialty stores for unique ingredients; and online for items that I can't find locally," he said.
When traveling with his family, you'll find him stopping to buy eggs directly from the farm. "The different colored eggs are so neat to look at, and they are richer in color and taste and creamier."
His family has definite favorites from dad's repertoire.
"My 8-year-old son likes my German puffed pancake, my 11-year-old daughter likes my risotto, and my 13-year-old daughter likes my smoked baby back ribs, smoked in my dad's 1965 Weber Westerner grill, and my wife likes my marinated flank steak served with chimichurri sauce."
Even though he has rubbed elbows and shared food with some of the world's renowned chefs like Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse and Grant Achatz, Benes always wanted to enter a cooking competition himself, and the Cook of the Week Challenge seemed like a perfect opportunity.
"I hope to challenge myself in creating unique recipes with unknown and, perhaps, new ingredients for the home cook. And, I hope to win and take home the big wooden spoon trophy!"
Kim Bradley's interest in the culinary arts launched when she was a teenager.
"My mom loved homemade cookies, so I would find new recipes, try them out then have my mom critique them," the Glen Ellyn resident explained.
It's no surprise then that she still loves to bake and has a personal mission to find the perfect chocolate chip cookie. "I'm not quite there, yet, but I'm pretty darn close," the 53-year-old said.
In addition to chocolate chips, she always has eggs and cucumbers on her shopping list. She thinks about menus over the weekend, what's already in the fridge and pantry, and builds from there.
"My family asks me every day 'what's for dinner tonight' because they like to anticipate what they're going to have." But they're not facing the same-old, same-old because she attempts one or two completely new recipes every week.
"I've been known to take a cookbook, flip the pages, stop on a page, and make that recipe."
Even though her family raves about her Chicken Piccata, pounding the chicken and the ensuing mess it makes in the kitchen relegates it to the menu only three or four times a year "when they beg for it."
Bradley's favorite food memories from her childhood are all about Sunday dinners.
"There was always something in the oven cooking away, and my sisters and I would lay on the floor and read the Sunday comics. Roast beef cooked in the oven brings me right back to my childhood home."
She also adores Thanksgiving Day stuffing, and a cheese ball served with her mother's homemade toasted onion crackers that were a big hit at her parents' parties.
Bradley has an affinity for olive oil for cooking and flavoring, but hopes she won't have to face mushrooms or seafood in the upcoming challenges. Even if she does, Bradley is a contender: she made it to the final four in 2015's Cook of the Week competition. She wanted to try to get there again so she can get that spoon.
"It's funny how the spoon means more to me than anything else!"
Because of their heart shape, tomatoes were once thought to be an aphrodisiac, so they were dubbed "love apples."
Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Lulu Chapa loves tomatoes for their versatility.
"What I like the most about a tomato is how you can use it as a starting point for countless dishes," the 46-year-old from Volo explained. "I like to make sautéed tomato sauce in advance, adding some extra herbs and spices."
Of course, the red orbs are always on her shopping list, along with chorizo and chicken.
Chapa, who is an Instructional Aide and Job Coach for D120 Transition Center, applied for COWC because her husband and kids have participated in cooking contests and they encouraged her to showcase her kitchen skills, too.
"I hope to get out of my comfort zone when trying to combine the mystery ingredients from each challenge in the kitchen," she said.
Her mother was the cook of the family, and it wasn't until Chapa married and had children that she learned the art through trial and error.
"My mom is from Mexico City and used to take me to all these different food markets."
The markets "were full of colors and flavors where, unlike restaurants which often use frozen products, everything there was fresh," she recalled.
"One particular memory is when my mom prepared an authentic mole sauce from scratch. She ground the ingredients together into a powder using a stone mill, creating a layering of complex flavors."
Her mom's chicken mole enchiladas are one of her all-time favorites, as well as cabrito al pastor, a spit-roasted baby goat dish from Northern Mexico. Although she will never refuse Mexican street corn on the cob, prepared with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder and a hint of lime, either.
Chapa has a busy life with work and her children's after-school activities, so she plans and does some cooking on Sundays.
"On a weekday they like basic dishes such as chicken flautas, which are fried chicken roll-ups topped with lettuce, sour cream and queso fresco," she explained. "And on weekends, they love when I prepare a beef tongue barbacoa."
Are there any ingredients she hopes not to face in one of the challenges?
"Artichokes -- not a fan."
It's no wonder Mount Prospect's Lisa Eberhahn feels comfortable in the kitchen. Her parents did lots of entertaining for family and friends, but it wasn't the same old things.
"For brunches, they would make things like fruit or savory filled homemade crepes, beignets, stuffed French toast and egg soufflés," the 50-year-old recounted. For dinner parties there was marinated steak or brined poultry and her mother's gumbo brimming with seafood, chicken, sausage and okra.
Having been exposed to different foods, tastes, textures and techniques her whole life, Eberhahn went on to complete the culinary program at Kendall College in 1999 and worked part-time for a catering company for five years after that.
"I loved the challenge of creating a menu that would wow our guests," she explained, "and it was always interesting to listen to our clients tell us what a perfectly catered party consisted of. Their expectations were our basket ingredients."
Now, with the routine of work, chores and keeping track of her family, she felt she wanted to bring back that culinary excitement into her life. That wish spurred her on to the Cook of the Week Challenge.
"It is always a pleasure to be around people that love to prepare and eat food as much as I do. I love to learn from others' techniques while engaging in some friendly competition and camaraderie."
What are three things always on this adventurous cook's shopping list? Cilantro -- for the freshness it brings to a dish; lemons for her lively homemade salad dressings; and rice cereal.
"It's my favorite thing to eat on a weekend morning with whatever fruit is in season. I also put the cereal on ice-cream for the crunch yet subtle texture."
Eberhahn, who is an account manager at Weldy Lamont Group and a manufacturers representative for Electrical Power Equipment, relishes Kalamata olives, too.
"I like to make Greek salads with them and cucumbers, tomatoes, feta and some homemade Greek dressing. I pile it all on a pita. I love the soft texture of olives and the tanginess they bring to a dish."
Weekdays she serves her family healthy meals teeming with seasonal vegetables, and richer cheeses and hearty meats make an appearance on weekends.
"My husband loves shrimp and grits, spices and herbs, so sometimes I make a chimichurri shrimp and grits for him," she explained.
"My oldest son loves sauces, and one of his favorite dishes is eggs Benedict. Every time he is home from college, I send him back with a container of the homemade hollandaise sauce. I think he eats it by the spoonful. And my youngest loves my cheeseburger mac and cheese.
"Very rarely do I cook the same dish twice. It keeps my family always wondering -- what's in it this time?"
Is the third time the charm for Arlington Heights' Roberta Fahey? She had a such great experience during her previous challenges, and last year, she reached the finale. "My family and friends all came to support me and I just had so much fun with so many people cheering for me," the 62-year-old explained.
Since Fahey stays busy cooking and catering for others and keeping up with her tie-dye business, she tends to improvise dinner.
"Sometimes I won't decide what I'm making until late afternoon, so I do go to the store pretty often," she said. "I'm also able to throw a great meal together very fast. We eat a lot of salmon, salads and chicken."
Fahey's go-to ingredient is garlic. "I throw it into almost everything I make, and I don't mean a little bit. If I don't have it in the house, I feel like something is off."
Her culinary turnoffs are sardines, mackerel and curry. "I have never tasted Indian food. My kids say that I sheltered them from it!"
Fahey's favorite food memories from childhood are her mother's corn pancakes and salmon patties. "She used to make them from the can, and I still make salmon patties, but from fresh salmon," she said.
Today, Fahey's faves include garlicky shrimp Scampi, simple, flavorful skirt steak and creme brûlée with caramel sauce. Her own family adores Fahey's hearty beef barley soup, as well as overnight French toast stuffed with bananas and chocolate chips with a caramel top.
Is the pressure on for Fahey's third go-round at COTW? "Believe it or not, I'm not that competitive, but this time I really am determined. I also made some really good friends along the journey. I want to have fun and just see what kind of recipes I can come up with. I am very excited for the opportunity again."
A reflection of how the American palate has expanded, Alex Marsalek's favorite ingredient is harissa.
"It is a delicious Moroccan pepper paste that goes great with most meats, vegetables, sides, marinades and sauces," the Antioch resident explained. "I like the versatility of harissa and the spice it instantly adds to any dish. One of my favorites recipes to make is harissa hummus."
Marsalek works long hours as an electrical supply salesman, so he's not manning the stove every day. "I live with my parents, so my father does most of the cooking on weeknights. I will cook for them maybe once a week and then cook at least one meal over the weekend for my family or friends."
Like most of us, Marsalek's interest in cooking started with his family: first with his grandmother and then with his dad and brother enjoying time spent in the kitchen together. The family once took a trip to the Culinary Institute of America and dined at the school's restaurant. Marsalek dubbed the seafood-focused experience one of the best meals he ever had.
Television also fanned his passion. "When I was very young, I used to watch the show 'Good Eats' a lot," he explained. "Once a friend and I filmed our own episode where we cooked something we learned on the show. It was a good time, and my brothers helped us with camera work. It was a fun time.
He was also a fan of "Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals." "In one episode she made a Christmas pasta dish. I tried making it for my family that year and everyone loved it. I don't make it every year, but whenever I do, it's a big hit."
Marsalek dove into the Cook of the Week Challenge simply to compete against other local home cooks and to prove his skill in the kitchen. "I would like to have fun competing and learn some new tricks in the process."
Leslie Kendrigan Meredith's interest in cooking literally grew from her curiosity about edible gardening. "I needed to find ways to turn my bounty into meals for my daughter and me," the Arlington Heights marketing executive at Current Global explained. It's not surprising then that homegrown heirloom tomatoes are among her favored ingredients.
"I grow different varieties of cherry, beefsteak, Roma and salad tomatoes. I use them in a host of different ways -- fresh in Caprese salads, as part of ratatouille, in salsa fresca, as the best part of a BLT, marinara sauce, soup, and roasted cherry tomato confit," the 54-year-old said. "They are so good that I also just enjoy them sliced with a sprinkling of salt. My lycopene intake is off the charts in the summer."
Meredith recently began teaching kids how to grow and cook "real" food (and founded the School of Food). The Cook of the Week Challenge seemed like a perfect way to boost her creativity and skill in the kitchen.
"Home cooking continues to decline, and the rate of diet-related illness is climbing," Meredith offered. "Anything I can do to help people make more good food at home is worth trying."
At home, she typically begins with her backyard harvest and turns to the internet for recipes that feature a combination of vegetables. "For instance, I recently found a recipe from Stephanie Izard that used up some eggplant and tomatillos. The resulting compote was used to make flatbread pizza one night, a pasta dish the next, and with scrambled eggs on a third night." She grabs extra-virgin olive oil, her homegrown garlic and salt to flavor many of her savory dishes.
She's not a food snob, but strives for moderation and balance and admits the Ben and Jerry's sits happily in the freezer next to the Sitka salmon.
Meredith has her fingers crossed that she won't have to get creative with liver during any of the challenges. "I look after two Golden Retriever females who are part of my mom's breeding program," Meredith clarified. "When pregnant and nursing, their diet includes liver, which I dutifully cook while holding my nose."
The busy mom smiles when reminiscing about making peanut butter cookies with her grandmother. "There were special techniques that made it memorable: like pressing the fork tines into the dough balls to make the crisscross pattern, and using the ancient sifter to add the powdered sugar," she recalls.
Her own family goes for Meredith's grilled peaches topped with Greek yogurt, crushed pistachios, a drizzle of local honey, and a basil leaf.
"Like most people, I am busy," she said. "Finding ways to cook once but enjoy multiple meals throughout the week is key to eating well for me."
Ann Wayne suffers from an obsession that many of us do: she is in love with her Instant Pot. "This love is so strong I have recently begun teaching Instant Pot cooking classes to help others learn pressure cooking and to share the love," the Lake Zurich resident beamed.
Wayne's interest in cooking blossomed watching television cooking shows, especially "Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals." Like Ray, she adores garlic and adds it into nearly everything. Onions and lemons come in at a second and third place in her list of favorite ingredients. The 55-year-old can also be spied sneaking vegetables into the food she prepares at home.
"My kids don't know. Shhhh, please don't tell them," Wayne admitted.
Her children probably do know about their mom's guilty pleasure, though. It's Wayne's own mother's homemade cookies. "Sugar, oatmeal, Snickerdoodle, chocolate crinkle, pizzelle, Ring-a-Rosie, chocolate chip, elephant ears -- it doesn't matter, I'll eat them all," she confessed. Just keep her away from peanut butter. "I do not like the smell, and if my kids want a PB&J sandwich, they make it themselves."
The self-described "foodie" is always thinking about what she can cook next for her family. "I improvise and tweak recipes to make them healthier and gluten-free without compromising taste."
They adore Wayne's lasagna, and they never tire of it because she's always experimenting with different vegetables and cheeses. And that Instant Pot doesn't get much of rest when spare ribs are on sale. The gang really goes for her fall-off-the-bone rendition.
Among her favorite food memories is the time she ordered a salad with bleu cheese for the first time as a child. "It was amazing! And that was when I realized how one or two simple ingredients could completely alter and improve the taste of the food."
The COWC contestant also recalls the third date when her husband-to-be made spaghetti with canned sauce, soggy salad, and burnt garlic bread.
"Cooking for someone is a beautiful gift of generosity and a great way to show them how much you care," Wayne said. "Even a basic home-cooked meal takes time, effort and love. We've been married 30 years, but that is the last time I let him cook dinner!"
This contest isn't Wayne's first culinary rodeo. "I had a lot of fun last year participating in COWC and made new foodie friends while experimenting with different ingredients," she said. "I'm looking forward to the competition again and expressing my creativity using new products and ingredients."