I’ve been fascinated with recipe contests and the people who enter them ever since I read the book Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America by Amy Sutherland last spring. To the uninitiated, these types of events are often viewed as lighthearted promotions meant to increase brand recognition. However, with lucrative prizes and thousands of dollars at stake, the truth of the matter is that recipe development has grown into a serious sport.
The major players, also known as “contesters,” are extremely calculated in their approach. Each recipe is well thought out, taking into account previous winning recipes and current food trends, and is aptly titled for maximum effect. It’s not unheard of for a dedicated competitor to submit dozens of entries for a single contest, especially for the big ones like the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the prize is a cool million dollars.
This past weekend, I took part in the Dole California Cook-Off held at the Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles. I was one of five food bloggers invited to assist the five finalists as they prepared their recipes for Ben Ford, chef and proprietor of Ford’s Filling Station, to judge. Narrowed down from a field of over 4,000 entries, the finalists were a mix of first-time entrants and seasoned contesters. The prize up for grabs was $1,000 and the opportunity to have their recipe printed on the back of Dole’s products.
I was paired up with a fellow named Harold Cohen from Hollywood, Florida. He’s a former plastic surgeon, legally blind, and feisty like you wouldn’t believe. He previously took home $25,000 for his Pimento Cheese Burger on the Food Network’s “Ultimate Recipe Showdown” and came in second the following year with his Alabama Smokehouse Pig Burger with White Barbecue Sauce. Needless to say, this man is dedicated to perfecting the art of the burger.
This afternoon, we prepared his Mandarin Chicken Burgers [recipe below] and were given an hour and a half to complete the task. We were judged on presentation, flavor, the use of Dole products, uniqueness, cooking flare, and how well we worked together.
From the get go, Harold was grumpy. Really grumpy. He was upset that his mise en place lacked the chicken that the recipe called for. He was beyond pissed that he was required to quadruple his original recipe to make sixteen burgers. Steam was coming out of his ears when square presentation plates could not be located. And he was just about to have a cow when he discovered that the wrong-sized cast-iron skillet wasn’t even properly seasoned. As his sous chef, I tried to calm him down and to complete our task with grace. But try as I might, Harold wasn’t having any of it.
After furiously chopping, mincing, and frying for what felt like only a few short minutes, it was time to present our burgers to Chef Ben Ford. Although they were prepared with a whole lot of frustration, the burgers miraculously turned out pretty damn well. I prayed that the judge would go easy on our “cooking flair” and “teamwork” scores, and focus on how delicious the end product was.
Following judging, the finalists, bloggers, and Dole representatives sat down for a bountiful feast featuring all of the dishes in the running for the grand prize. After sweating and stressing on the stoves, it was a pleasure to sit back, relax, and enjoy each other’s hard work.
I filled my plate with one of every dish—Kathy Patalsky’s Ginger Mandarin Orange Rice with Cashew Tofu, Laura Greenberg’s Pineapple Glazed Bacon Wrapped Scallops with Pineapple Macadamia Nut Quinoa, Janice Elder’s Orange and Avocado Black Crowned Thai Grilled Chicken Thighs, Laura Ploeger’s Unbelievable Turkey and Pineapple Infused Stuffed Peppers, and of course, Harold’s Mandarin Chicken Burgers. After sampling each dish, I believed in my heart of hearts that flavor-wise, Harold had it in the bag!
At the end of our meal, Chef Ben Ford announced the grand prize winner. Janice Elder took top honors with her Orange and Avocado Black Crowned Thai Grilled Chicken Thighs!
My grumpy, but ultimately likable partner Harold wasn’t victorious, but I still had a ball participating in the cook-off. Best of all, I came out of the event with a wonderful recipe for chicken burgers.
Harold’s Mandarin Chicken Burgers
- 1 can (11 oz.) DOLE® Mandarin Oranges
- 2/3 cup mayonnaise
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced, divided
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger, divided
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup diced English cucumber
- 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
- 1-1/4 pounds ground chicken or turkey
- 1-1/2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
- 4 sesame seed hamburger buns, lightly toasted
Drain mandarin oranges. Reserve 3 tablespoons syrup. Combine mayonnaise, 1/4 cup mandarin oranges, 1 clove garlic and 1/2 teaspoon ginger in food processor container. Cover; blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Chop remaining mandarin oranges. Stir together oranges, cucumber, and 1/3 cup cilantro in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Combine chicken, reserved syrup, Hoisin sauce, 1-1/2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper with remaining garlic, ginger and cilantro until just mixed. Form mixture into 4 patties.
Heat a heavy skillet over high heat. Place patties in skillet and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn burgers over and cook for another three minutes or until cooked through.
Spread a generous amount of mandarin mayo on cut side of bottom bun; top with patty, mandarin salsa and bun top. Repeat with remaining patties.
A special thank you to Dole and The Rogers Group for hosting such an awesomely fun event. And a special shout out to my fellow blogging sous chefs: Alice of Savory Sweet Life, Justin of Justin Eats , Erin of Food Tramp Diaries, and Gabriela of Gabriela’s Kitchen.