Final four share favorite challenges, recipes and how to prepare for a live cook-off

 
Daily Herald report
Updated 11/7/2018 12:28 PM
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It's a bold step, putting your cooking skills out in the public eye and having food professionals critique your creations. That's what we ask of Cook of the Week Challenge contestants, and we get dozens of applicants each year; indeed some return again and again for the love of food and cooking.

They have to step out of their comfort zones, for sure. But as one cook put it, the challenge gets the creative juices flowing when faced with that universal question: "What's for dinner?"

Here we hear from our final four, what they're doing to prepare for the live cook-off on Nov. 12 and their overall feelings about the Cook of the Week Challenge.

Tickets for the finale are $20, with $5 going to the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Tickets include appetizers, food samples, one drink ticket and a goody bag. They're available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cook-of-the-week-challenge-finale-2018-tickets-48812619860?aff=erelexpmlt.

Paul Valade/pvalade@dailyherald.comOut of four challenges, Oscar Chapa of Volo likes his recipe for Mack Cake Eggs Benedict with Sautéed Spinach Sweet Potato Hash with Cilantro Spicy Mustard infused Hollandaise sauce the best.
Paul Valade/pvalade@dailyherald.comOut of four challenges, Oscar Chapa of Volo likes his recipe for Mack Cake Eggs Benedict with Sautéed Spinach Sweet Potato Hash with Cilantro Spicy Mustard infused Hollandaise sauce the best. -
Oscar Chapa

Volo

I was excited and nervous when I learned that I made the final four. I like to win, I am competitive, but I have never been in a situation like this before. Cooking in front of an audience does make me nervous, but I get nervous cooking for anyone other than my family. My wife and kids jumped up and down a bit when I broke the news; I didn't because I was already thinking ahead.

I'm not doing anything to prepare for the evening except resting and practicing being calm. It will help that my cooking helper next Monday will be my wife, Lulu.

Oscar Chapa
Oscar Chapa -

Of all the challenges, my favorite was the first one. The mystery ingredients were Vanilla Bean Paste from Neilsen-Massy; Caminito Ham Off The Bone from Greenridge Farm; butternut squash from AMITA Health Systems; Anjou pears; and Erythritol from NOW Foods. My best recipe, my favorite, was the Mack Cakes Eggs Benedict.

To all home cooks that are thinking about entering next year -- don't hold back. Go all in or don't go in at all.

I'm just grateful for the opportunity to participate and getting me excited about cooking again.

Rick West/rwest@dailyherald.comMark Clemens of Elgin made says his Sicilian pasta with sardines and meatless meatballs is his favorite recipe.
Rick West/rwest@dailyherald.comMark Clemens of Elgin made says his Sicilian pasta with sardines and meatless meatballs is his favorite recipe. -
Mark Clemens

Elgin

I was watching a Bears game with my son Casey when I got the email telling me I was in the finals, and I didn't have my reading glasses on. The email started like a "Dear John" letter thanking me for my participation, and I handed my iPhone over to him as I assumed I understood the intent of the communiqué. So the fun news came from my son (and the Bears won!).

I'm very comfortable being in front of an audience and, if invited, will probably give a toast at your house before we eat.

My preparation for the live event has really been trying to relax. The extended period between round four and the finale has been a nice breather.

Mark Clemens
Mark Clemens

My brother Don Clemens will be my cooking helper for the event. Hey! He's my older brother, so there are always brief fireworks, but our love of food and wine and each other is typically the result.

Throughout the contest, I ate all of my preparations, as in, sit down at a table and have dinner. The flavors worked with each other as opposed to forcing the issue. Throughout the challenge, I have tried to keep my recipes true to what I feel is the spirit of the competition. I felt that was to maximize the given ingredients and minimize additions. Because of that spirit, I'm going to pick round 4 as my favorite as it was one dish that maxed out the bag of ingredients (Sicilian Pasta with Sardines and Meat(less)balls).

If you're thinking about joining in next year, try it! You might surprise yourself. I have always been willing to try new foods and typically respond that I'm still trying to find an ingredient that I don't like. I think this contest has made me more adaptive to looking in my refrigerator and thinking, "Hey, maybe that would taste good with some of these."

When I stood on stage last year, I looked at the four dishes and thought to myself, "I think I've got this." Man, would I like to hold that spoon over my head and in Apollo Creed-like fashion (from "Rocky") yell out "There ain't going to be no rematch!"

Roberta Fahey's playful take on paella is her favorite dish created during the contest. She was worried when she saw the sardines, but she says the fritters turned out great.
  Roberta Fahey's playful take on paella is her favorite dish created during the contest. She was worried when she saw the sardines, but she says the fritters turned out great. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
Roberta Fahey

Arlington Heights

The cooking challenge has been an incredible journey for me. This summer was challenging. I had surgery on both of my feet at the same time, so I was immobile for a good part of the summer. With all the time that I had on my hands (not my feet), I decided the night before the deadline to enter the cooking challenge. I entered four years ago but didn't make it past the first round but I wasn't going to let that stop me, and I'm so happy that I didn't.

I have been having so much fun with the contest although some of the foods aren't favorites. I guess that is why it is called a "challenge."

To have made it through all four rounds has made me the happiest person ever! On Sunday night I woke up at about 12:30 a.m. and decided to check my emails, and there it was. An email saying that I made it through. I was so excited that I started screaming and crying. I'm a pretty emotional and animated person.

Roberta Fahey
Roberta Fahey

I am more than happy, and I am very proud of myself. I've had a lot of support from all of my friends and family. They've all enjoyed watching my creations.

At this very moment, I'm not nervous about cooking in front of an audience, but as the time gets closer, I'm sure that I will be.

Sometimes I do better under pressure, but we'll just have to wait and see. I'm bringing my brother Jordan with me to be my assistant. We both work well together, and if anything, he'll keep me calm, and I know we'll probably be laughing the whole time.

I'm looking forward to cooking with him, and I know that we will work great together.

As far as preparing for the night, I have been watching more cooking shows than I usually do, trying to get ideas from different chefs. I'm always reading magazines and cookbooks. The rest will depend on the ingredients and our creativity, but I'm going to stay as calm as I could and enjoy the evening.

If I had to pick a favorite round and recipe, it would probably be the last one. I thought that a little twist on the paella was a good idea and I felt that the presentation was beautiful. I was concerned about the sardines, but actually, the fritters were delicious.

If someone asked me about entering the Cook of the Week Challenge, I would say "go for it." Even if you entered before, don't let that stop you. It's so much fun, and I have to say that everyone has been lovely and super helpful and very patient! It's all about letting your creativity come out and just having fun. Is it stressful? Yes. It can be at times, but it's worth every minute of it.

Arlington Heights firefighter Darla Pitts thinks her best dish made during four rounds of the Cook of the Week Challenge was her creamy lemon pesto orzo with oven roasted turkey, asparagus and tomato.
  Arlington Heights firefighter Darla Pitts thinks her best dish made during four rounds of the Cook of the Week Challenge was her creamy lemon pesto orzo with oven roasted turkey, asparagus and tomato. - Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer
Darla Pitts

Chicago

I was so excited to make it to the finals of the 2018 Cook of the Year.

I feel like my recipe writing has improved a lot since last year, which made the challenge rounds more enjoyable.

I will say that you don't realize how stressful the finals really are until you experience it for yourself. The time just flies by. I'm always creating and trying out new recipes which I feel will help me in the final challenge this year.

Darla Pitts
Darla Pitts

This year I decided to bring a close friend with me who is a Chicago fireman; his name is John Anderson. It only took me a year to convince him to come.

My favorite recipe that this season was Creamy Lemon Pesto Orzo, with Oven Roasted Turkey, Asparagus & Tomato. I would definitely encourage anyone who enjoys cooking to participate in the challenge. The weekly challenges really improve your cooking skills.

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at the finals.

I'm going to be focused on winning this year, but feel free to drop by our station to say hi and maybe drop off a glass of wine; John and I will appreciate any support.

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