Thoughts from a 25k Grand Winner—Dole California Cook-Off—Read #1

Once upon a time~~blah blah blah, maybe a blip or glitch or two, then it’s Cinderella time~~and, she lived happily ever after! I remember these kinds of fairy tales when I was a little girl~~and, now even as a kid in a big body, I admit I have probably fantasized more as I’ve watched movies, yes, ‘Pretty Woman’ ‘An American President’ ‘Mama Mia,’ depicting this kind of storyline.

My weekend at the 2013 DOLE California Cook-Off falls into this fairy tale time for me.  And, my feet still have reached the ground as I sit here in 34C Delta flight #1654 cruising at 35,000 feet.  Just what happened and how it happened has happened to some, not many, and there’s where the magic comes in!  It’s knowing that it CAN happen for you, if you just believe, create, work and dream.

Stepping into the pit~~

I’d kept my eyes and ears peeled for news about the 2013 Dole contest after meeting last year’s winner, Jeanette, at the 2012 World Food Championships.  Just a precious and adorable little girl, well, a mama of three, she immediately captured my heart because she is from West Virginia—we Hillbillies have a certain bond with one another especially if you share the passion of food!  When the 2013 contest opened, I did what I do first—read the rules and guidelines, several times making sure I understood what was expected.  Then for a couple of weeks my brain was subconsciously spinning with ideas—lucky me, I hit Kroger one day when almost all the Dole products were on sale, so I loaded up on various types to experiment and have handy just in case a lightning bolt hit me!

Since I’d been on a global search for months with new spices and found many I loved, I decided to incorporate in whatever I created something Middle Eastern, Moroccan, and North African—this would be the cornerstone of my recipe—it would drive every other product that went into it and determine what the combination of flavors would be. Over several more weeks, my head went into coma mode about this contest—so many other things needed attention—but, I knew my subconscious was constantly sifting through ideas even when I was sleeping, so I wasn’t really concerned.  That’s the best way to have ideas germinate—just let it go, relax, and it will come to you.

When inspiration strikes~~

And, one morning it did!  My bestest friend, Nan (another WV girl!), who’s truly a sister, and Noni, her feisty and delectable Italian Thoughts from a 25k Grand Winner—Dole California Cook-Off—Read #1 mother nearing 90 were coming for our weekly get-together…it’s always unscripted, happens in the kitchen where each sit on either side of my stainless steel restaurant style prep table, and we talk, laugh, drink cappuccino, taste food, drink wine, and they watch me cook!  I have a stack of small tapas plates that each new dish or treat goes on, fully designed and ready for photographing, and they taste and review! When they arrived this particular day, they’d brought Mary—another WV girl—the more the merrier!  It was my and their lucky day—what was I creating—my entries for the Dole California Cook Off! They were the first mouths, other than mine, that actually tasted this dish, and it got rave reviews, hands down, a winner!

Letting time pass~~

After submitting a recipe to a contest, other than putting it in a virtual file, I always just forget about it.  Oh, yes, I mark my tangible calendar letting me know the time that the company might announce the winner(s), but other than that, it’s put to bed, done, over—if something happens, that’s great—if nothing happens, well, I’m well on my way to entering other cooking contests.

Getting the fateful email saying that I was one of the three finalists (Eastern, Western and Central U.S.) shocked me!  Wow!  I even had to ask the promotional representative which recipe won because I’d submitted two.   I was going to be going to California, doing a cook off, and competing for $25,000!!  I knew of my competitors, both seasoned, talented, creative and tough opponents—not doubt I had my work cut out for me!  I approached this contest like none other before—it’s not often you get into the arena, like the Gladiator, and have a chance to win this kind of money.  I knew it would not be bush league—every second of my recipe execution had to be perfected, timed exactly and there was no room whatsoever for error.

Going into training mode~~

Over the next few weeks I had to get everything I needed down to wipes or paper towels outlined and listed for the cooking event.  So many things you do automatically in your own kitchen, so you don’t realize what you’re using or grabbing to use—maybe a rubber spatula, a pair of snipping scissors, or a pastry brush.  Now, I needed to write down everything as I worked.  The same went for my ingredients—not only listing them, but helping source brands and types ensuring the best and highest quality ingredients would go into the recipe—of course Dole Tropical Mixed Fruit was the star!

I was training for a competition, not just cooking, but a competition that had time limits, was not on my home court (my own kitchen), in a place where I’d have none of my family, hubby, Ben, with me, and where I’d need to have execution down to a science.  I’d learned from so many of my previous competitions the mistakes I’d made from getting distracted by others, including spectators, to not paying attention to the big picture—errors and mistakes that’d cost me money in the past and probably some winnings!

The week before departing for California I did intense ‘scrimmages’—setting the timer, working under the time constraints, making mistakes in the recipe preparation from not using enough Italian bread crumbs to hold the meatballs securely together (you have to get the ‘feel’ for this!) to making the meatballs too small or too large!  Things like this affect the end result, especially cooking time.  I felt good because I was making these mistakes in practice not in the actual game—this increased my confidence immensely!

Taste testers extraordinaire~~

Critical to any food competition is having others taste and critique your food.  Yes, a cardinal rule of cooking is taste taste taste, but sometimes my palate can be skewed, so having my ‘food seekers’—Matthew, Whitney, Nan, Noni, Mary—gave me a diverse range of palates.  And, believe it or not, our palates do change as we age, so I had taste testers that ranged in age from their 80s to 30s!  Male and female.  Single and married.  Those who love to cook.  Those who love to eat.  Those who love both.

Watching someone’s eyes as they look at your dish you put in front of them gives huge clues.  Did their eyes light up?  Did you hear a quiet ‘wow’ or loud ‘WOW’? Visual presentation—eating with your eyes—I knew with this recipe even little seemingly inconsequential things like the grill marks on the meatballs, the charring on the fruit, the golden brown and creaminess of the Greek yogurt sauce, small flicks of fresh mint scattered about, and snow white creamy goat cheese crumbles would start the saliva glands pumping!  And, that, I knew, was one of the judging criteria for the cook-off—visual presentation—what would those judges be thinking as my plate of kabobs was passed along their eyes for visual inspection!

I made this recipe at least five times the week before going to the cook-off.  I was honestly sick of meatballs!  But, what I got from all of this concentrated work was good honest feedback.  Suggestions and comments that helped me, without a doubt, bring home a win!  These comments were instrumental in making very small adjustments to the recipe, fine-tuning to perfection, and this is what a winning recipe must have—no flaws, perfection among all the layers of flavors from the time you bite into it then chew, then swallow and just let your palate savor.

Now, head on over and read #2~~it’s time to compete!

Come enjoy some of the fun with me~~The Dole Photo Gallery compliments of my girlfriends, Jennifer & Sara~~

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts from a 25k Grand Winner—Dole California Cook-Off—Read #1”

  1. Loved your blog today ~ I love reading all the background about your preparation. You hard work paid off! I still have a huge smile on my face as far as California is to North Carolina!

      1. Yeah Yeah ~ I had nightmares of my grin cuz I realized in the middle of the night that North Carolina was a mistake….Are there more miles between So. CA and So. Carolina? I hope so, cuz that is how big my smile is for YOU!

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