Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a sponsored cook-off event? Well, this past weekend I was honored to be one of five invited food bloggers to assist five finalists for the Dole California Cook-Off in Los Angeles, California. Each food blogger was paired with a recipe finalist preparing their entry to be judged by celebrity chef Ben Ford, chef and proprietor of the Ford’s Filling Station restaurant in Culver City, CA.
The finalists ranged from first time recipe contest entrants to seasoned home cooks who have won several notable cooking contests, including the popular contests of The Food Network and Betty Crocker.
Of over 4000 recipe entries, the top five finalists were selected by a panel of recipe developers and testers to narrow the field down to the top entries. Each recipe was required to have no more than eight ingredients, including Dole products. The prize for winning this contest would include $1000 and have their recipe printed on the back of thousands of Dole products, not to mention an all expense trip to Los Angeles for two.
All finalists and accompanied food bloggers were treated to a wonderful three night stay at the Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood. Coincidentally, the hotel was also hosting celebrities and their entourages for the BET Awards. Needless to say, every one of us experienced Hollywood in a surreal way. My first day in Hollywood I walked right pass Kim Kardashian while entering the hotel, then later in the evening watched Tom Cruise and Jimmy Kimmel zip line right past me on the second floor of Sephora. Crazy, right?!
The day of the cook-off everyone met in the lobby where we were taxied to the Epicurean School Culinary Arts on Melrose Avenue. We were greeted by the wonderful folks at Dole Foods and Chef Ben Ford. From there, the finalists were assigned their sous-chef/food blogger and everyone had 1.5 hrs to prepare their dish. Chef Ben would walk around to each station sharing his expert cooking knowledge and tips. He showed me the proper way to chop an onion which I confess I normally have a food processor do. I must say: he is one of the most down to earth people I’ve ever met. Especially considering his father, Harrison Ford, is such a big star on the Hollywood scene.
The criteria he used to judge each of the cook-off entries were: presentation, flavor, the use of Dole products, uniqueness, cooking flare, and how well each team worked together.
I was paired with Laura Ploeger, a labor and delivery nurse from Arizona. She was incredibly kind, fun to work with, and is a passionate home cook. We prepared her dished titled, “Unbelievable Turkey and Pineapple Infused Stuffed Peppers,” a delicious dish I am looking forward to preparing at home for my family. It was the perfect blend of layered flavors, which were both savory and sweet. The bell peppers were baked to perfection rendering a soft but not mushy pepper and a cheesy stuffing on top. I think you may be seeing Laura soon on the internet when she starts her own food blog, at least I hope she starts her own food blog. Are you reading this Laura??
When each team completed their final dish we presented them to Chef Ben for his review. He intently looked at each one with a critical eye and every one of us watched as he lifted his pen to makes notes on his score sheet. He has a pretty good poker face because he was not making any facial gestures to give us a clue as to whether or not he liked what he tasted. Once he was done sampling each dish we all stepped outside for a brief break while the Dole team transformed the kitchen into a tropical dining room. When they finished we were all called back inside and helped ourselves to all the wonderful dishes each team prepared including additional dishes Dole had us make as part of the competition.
It was a wonderful feast to visually and literally partake in. We all sat down finally able to sample everyone’s delectable recipes and the atmosphere changed from focused concentration to a casual, laid back meal among friends. Towards the end of the meal, Chef Ben Ford and the Dole people gathered at the head of the table to share their thoughts about each dish and to announce the winner of the Dole California Cook-Off. I was unsure who would win since each dish was pretty amazing and unique. Would it be Harold’s Mandarin Chicken Burgers, Kathy’s Ginger Mandarin Orange Rice with Cashew Tofu, Laura’s Pineapple Glazed Bacon Wrapped Scallops with Pineapple Macadamia Nut Quinoa, Janice’s Orange and Avocado Black Crowned Thai Grilled Chicken Thighs, or Laura’s Unbelievable Turkey and Pineapple Infused Stuffed Peppers?
In the end, if would be the Orange and Avocado Black Crown Thai Chicken dish prepared by Janice Elder (partnered with Gabriela) who would take home the grand prize. Elder, not new to the recipe contest circuit, lit up the room with her beauty, grace, and ear-to-ear smile. She looks like Martha Stewart with Paula Deen’s grace and Southern charm. It was a bittersweet moment when her name was announced. I was happy for her but a little sad for everyone else… there could only be one winner. But honestly, each finalist was a winner just to have been chosen among thousands of entries and to receive an all expense trip to Hollywood, don’t you think? Many thanks to Dole for putting on such a fantastic event and treating us to glamour filled weekend. I had a fantastic time!
Food bloggers participating in this event: Cathy (Gastronomy Blog), Justin (Justin Eats), Erin (Food Tramp Diaries), and Gabriela (Gabriela’s Kitchen).
A side note worth mentioning:
One of the best bits of news I was told at this event was regarding Dole’s snack sized fruit cups. They are working on changing the liquid used in these cups from heavy syrup to fruit juice only. This is a great and responsible move on their part in taking steps to curb the obesity epidemic in America’s children. Most people I know who buy these snack cups are parents who purchase them for their child’s lunches. When we don’t’ have fresh fruit in the house, I do pack Dole snack sized cups of peaches for my daughters’ lunch and always felt a little guilty about doing this. But with this change in the works, that will be one less added stress I have to worry about. Thank you Dole for doing this!