A panel of experts convened in New York City last week to determine the country’s best kosher cook, and the results may come as a surprise: The winner was not Jewish.
Riding her delicious sweet potato encrusted chicken to victory, Candace McMenamin of Lexington, S.C., won the first-ever Simply Manischewitz Cook-off.
About 350 people packed into the Empire Room at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square to watch McMenamin beat out five other finalists — all women, four Jewish and one non-Jewish. In preparation for the showdown, a rabbi was brought in to kasher all the ovens and supervise the purchase of all the ingredients. A representative from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office was there with a proclamation making it official: February 1, 2007, was Simply Manischewitz Cook-off Day.
The finalists began chopping like mad when the cook-off started. With dishes as diverse as Middle Eastern falafel stuffed peppers, whitefish and potato knishes, and pea and fennel Soup, the only common denominator among the competing recipes was that they were all kosher, could all be prepared within one hour and all contained at least one Manischewitz product. The stakes were high: The winner was to take home a brand-new General Electric Co. kitchen, worth $20,000, plus $7,000 in cash and prizes, and a $3,000 savings bond from Manischewitz.
The panel of eight judges — which included Susie Fishbein, author of the Kosher by Design series of cookbooks; several professional chefs, including Ritz Carlton Chef Jacques Sorci, and Nachum Segal, host of 91.1 WFMU’s daily radio program, JM in the AM — wandered the room while the women cooked. “I’m looking for something fresh,” Fishbein said. “Kosher cooking isn’t just your bubbe’s brisket anymore.”
At the end of an hour, the chefs presented their dishes to the judges, who sat at a round table with their clipboards. They were judging for taste (50%), ease of preparation (20%), appearance (15%) and originality and creativity (15%).
McMenamin, who is something of a veteran cooking contestant — she was a two-time finalist in the Pillsbury bake-off — first saw an ad for the contest in Cooking Light magazine. Her friends were befuddled by the thought of a non-Jewish entrant in a kosher cooking competition. “How can you do that?” they asked.
But McMenamin was not deterred, and in the end she ran up against only one major obstacle: Her usual grocery store, the Piggly Wiggly, didn’t carry Manischewitz products, so to gather the ingredients from the company — sweet potato pancake mix, poultry seasoning, apricot preserves, white grape juice and extra virgin olive oil cooking spray — she had to go across town to the local Publix.