Cook of the Week Finale offers food, drink, prizes and more
After weeks of intense battle and a final cooking showdown, Leslie Meredith of Arlington Heights won the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge and the coveted giant wooden spoon.
Nearly 400 people gathered at The Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca to watch the ninth annual cook-off finale, while cheering on their favorite chefs and sampling cuisine from some of the area's most popular food and beverage vendors.
Paul Guerrero, executive chef at Cooking Skills Academy in Itasca, hosted the evening and kept the audience informed of each home chef's progress. Four finalists had advanced in the Daily Herald's weekly cooking competition to compete in the finale.
The night opened with a buffet-style dinner provided by Grecian Delight and The Westin Chicago Northwest. Guests enjoyed multiple pasta options, chicken shawarma, gyros slices and hummus, with Mediterranean nut rolls for dessert, among other tasty offerings.
Once their plates were full, attendees could peruse raffle prizes donated courtesy of Cook of the Week sponsors. Raffle items included a Beko blender, tickets to "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theatre, a cooking class for two at Cooking Skills Academy, and much more. Guests dropped off raffle tickets at the prize table throughout the night, with winners announced just prior to the big reveal of the Cook of the Week champion.
The final four contestants had one hour to prepare a completely original dish using sponsors' ingredients as well as items from a well-stocked pantry. Secret ingredients provided by the sponsors were Coconut Infusion Non-Dairy Butter from NOW Foods, sweet potatoes, skhug sauce provided by Grecian Delight, and ground beef from Pre Brands. As the finalists dove into the challenge and fervently prepped their meals, guests milled around the perimeter of the ballroom, sampling tasty treats from multiple vendors. Guests liked tasting mini indulgences from Seasons 52 restaurant; samples of Pumpkin Spice, Red Velvet and Chocolate Chocolate Chip Bundtlettes from the Mount Prospect Nothing Bundt Cakes location; a variety of popcorn flavors from Signature Popcorn, located in historic downtown Long Grove; and several of Ellyndale Foods Nutty Infusion nut butters.
Guests also enjoyed samples of Moretti's rustic penne pasta with chicken sausage, grass-fed and grass-finished beef samples from Pre Brands, sweet and sour pork sliders with caramelized pineapple cooked with Thermador appliances courtesy of Novak & Parker Home Appliance in Mount Prospect; and cheese fondue, a fig, bacon and pear flatbread, and The Kim Classic & Tomato Bisque shooter from the Toasty Cheese Restaurant Group. Skeptic Distillery and PRP Wine International provided gin, vodka and wine for people to sip throughout the night.
As the contestants raced against the clock, renowned chefs entertained the crowd with cooking demonstrations. Ahmed Azizy, executive chef at The Westin Chicago Northwest, kicked off the evening by showing the crowd how to make Braised Short Rib Tagine with Figs & Almonds. Suzy Singh, corporate research and development chef at NOW Foods, made a Healthy and Simple Mango Chicken Satay, and reminded the crowd to keep it simple when cooking. Andrew Sikkelerus, executive chef at Barrio Restaurant, made Aqua Chile. José Sosa, executive chef at Gibson's Italia, teamed up with Mario Rizotti, a judge on "Iron Chef America," to show the audience how to make gnocchi with pancetta.
Before the crowd knew it, the four Cook of the Week finalists were asked to set their utensils down and serve their dishes to the judges. The demonstrators, as well as Jimmy Nicolau, director of Midwest sales at Grecian Delight Foods, and Darla Pitts, the 2018 Cook of the Week Challenge winner, served as judges.
Meredith's dish, a curry platter featuring a veggie curry and a beef curry, was judged first. The curry was served over rice and at the eleventh hour, Meredith and her sister and sous chef for the night, made homemade naan to complete the dish. Anne Wayne of Barrington created a Hamburg steak on a bed of rice with a sweet potato and carrot soup. Lulu Chapa of Volo presented a Thanksgiving-inspired plate to the judges that featured cranberry meatballs with skhug sauce, couscous and a sweet potato and green bean hash. Lisa Eberhahn of Mount Prospect developed Mediterranean nachos made with fried sweet potatoes, ground beef, a cheese sauce and assorted vegetables.
In the end, Meredith's curry platter was awarded the judges' top marks.
"It's a big, happy surprise," Meredith said of her win.
As winner, Meredith received a chef's table at Seasons 52, a Beko dishwasher from Novak & Parker, cooking classes from Cooking Skills Academy, a King Oscar T-shirt and gift cards from Binny's Beverage Depot, Northwest Metalcraft, BurgerIM and Fresh International Market.
Several of Meredith's friends and family members were there to cheer her on and celebrate her victory. Her friends, who call themselves The Village, were thrilled with Meredith's first-place finish, but said they had no doubt she'd shine throughout the competition. The group regularly gets together for dinner parties (no cleaning, prepping the house or buying special ingredients allowed; it's a come as you are affair) at each other's houses. Several said Meredith always blows the events away by preparing meals with fresh ingredients from her garden.
Meredith doesn't consider herself a deeply experienced cook, but she was grateful for the opportunity to teach herself how to work with new ingredients and tools throughout the Cook of the Week Challenge.
"I've been expanding my repertoire and my confidence because I've been able to try new things," she said.