My stint as a Florida Keys Cook Off contestant or Why I'll never be a Top Chef


On Monday, March 6th, I had the opportunity to go back to my culinary alma mater, The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.  The reason being, a cook off contest to help promote the Florida Keys and Key West.  Area Food Influences and Bartenders were invited to join in on the promotional launch of The Florida Keys and Key West.  In the local Philadelphia area, our major train station, 30th Street Station, has been transformed into a laid back, beach chair and umbrella, clear water paradise.  Ads on our local online news source have been featuring gorgeous photos of the clean beaches of the keys.  The cook-off contest was sponsored by the Florida Keys Tourism Board and promoted locally by Kory Aversa of Aversa PR and Events (he's the force of nature behind the PR of Diner en Blanc Philadelphia!)  If you saw or read the hashtag, #FLKeysCookOff, it was our personal promo "code" to use on social media. 
Smoked Salmon Cones - little tasty rich bites


Creamy Cool Soup Shots with a Cilantro Habanero Kick and Coconut Rock Shrimp


Fine Palate Restaurant's Dragon Fruit Cocktail


Grouper Tacos!


Canapes


Mini Cubano Sandwiches


Punch with Spicy Salty Rimmed Glasses and Edible Flowers
The timing  of the event worked out perfectly for me - schedules at home synced up so that I could attend the event and that Liz, free in the evening, could come to support me.  The event featured foods of Key West - think conch fritters, coconut soups, Cubano sandwiches and all thing Key Lime Pie.  The pie, actually was the hook for me - I thought the contest was all about baking a key lime pie.  Little did I realize we had to bake a Key Lime Pie AND cook a seafood dish.  For drinks, there were 4-5 bartenders, from several fine watering holes and dining establishments were invited to make a signature Key West flair cocktail.  I was pleased to see friends from Fine Palate restaurant at 15th and Locust in the contest - with their sexy spice Dragon Fruit cocktail.



I will admit, that I entered into the event just for the fun of it and to see who I could see; to mingle, network, to have a bit of a lark.  I figured that while I'm not the best baker, I'm a darn good cook, so I might as well give it my best shot and have a good time.  Operative words here, best shot and HAVE A GOOD TIME.  I need to repeat that more often to myself.  Have. A. Good. Time.  I take things too seriously.  I arrived, with my culinary kit in hand, Bicycle-Chef gear tucked into my bag, and wearing my brand new, "Official" TheBicycle-Chef.com chef's jacket.  I was the only person in the contest wearing a chef's jacket, everyone else dressed casually.  All night long, I was mistaken for someone who either worked at The Restaurant School, or who was currently attending the school.  Oh well, I guess I both stood out and blended in.  Strike 1.
A Room full of Food Influences - and competition!
The very cute and talented, Chef Robert Stoky.
Top Gear for TheBicycle-Chef
Oye Vey it was a Pie Disaster
If only I had left the bottle of Tequila on the plate...
What is this thing? Cheesecake? Cake Wreck? Pie Disaster?

Yellow Tail Snapper with Margarita Salsa 3-Ways
24 contestants, ranging from  local radio personalities, Philly Gay Calendar coordinators, my good friend, LeAnne Lindsay of TinselTine.com, local bloggers and foodies, and other food influences were treated to hors d'oeuvres and sweets.  We met with the judges and FL Keys Tourism President and big wigs.  We were treated to a quick culinary demo by Chef Robert "Bobby" Stoky, and then we were let loose into our kitchens to bake a Key Lime Pie.  All ingredients were readied for us, along with kitchen gadgets.  I didn't need to bring a blessed tool, save for my lime zester.  Strike 2.    Strikes 3, 4, 5, and 6 came next.

Baking Science is real folks.  Food chemistry matters.  I baked a trial run "Key Lime" Pie the night before, and while I did not have Key Limes or juice, the pie was good.  For the contest, we could bring a "secret" ingredient to make our pie stand out.  I debated plenty on what to bring.  If I was making my own crust, I would have done pretzels in the crust.  The crusts were pre-made.  I was prepared for everything.  Like I said before, I take things too seriously.  I should have listened to my first thought - pretzels.  So I also brought almonds and a toffee, almond, pretzel candy I made (which I nixed but shared around the office the next day).  For the filing, I debated on using a splash of fresh lemon juice to brighten the citrus tang.  I also brought Tequila, to help booze up the pie and make it more like a Margarita.  I over-thought the baking part.  During the contest, I went for the Tequila and mixed up the order of adding citrus to the sweetened condensed milk.  There is a reason for why you put ingredients together in a certain order, especially in baking.  Chemistry!

Were were given 50 minutes to bake our pies.  I was the only person who took ALL 50 Minutes!  I added way too much lime juice and Tequila to the condensed milk and I add my eggs into the mix after, not before.  A Key Lime pie is so simple to make, typically 3 ingredients - a can of sweetened condensed milk, 3 or 4 egg yolks and the juice of Key Limes, maybe the Zest too.  Pour into a graham cracker crust, bake for 20 minutes. Chill.  Done.  Bing. Bang. Boom.  I was all Boom and then BUST.  I don't think I've ever had a bigger baking disaster, not since I made some Coffee/Mocha Mousse for a Valentines's Day Dinner that turned into a sickly sweet mortar that we couldn't get out of our fancy glasses or swallow down without gagging.  But I digress.
What is this thing, called Key Lime Pie?
Because I reversed the order of eggs to condensed milk, and had too much liquid, my pie wouldn't bake, and when it did bake and started to set, it rose too high, like a soufflé.  I took it out of the oven at the 49.5 minute mark, and refrigerated it immediately.  It rose and collapsed into a crazy, craggy mess.  My finished pie had the texture of cheesecake.  Don't ask me how.  It was no silky custard that's for sure.  Strike 3.  But I wasn't out yet.

Over-all winner of the FL Key's contest went to Colleen Kennedy, blogger from Soufflé Bombay.  After the event, I realized I knew who she was, so I wrote to congratulate her. She's a wonderful blogger, with insightful posts and beautiful photographs.  Plus, she's a local gal who's really making it in the world of blogging and twitter events.

I knew for certain that any thoughts I had to win the contest and win a trip to Key West were dashed.  Oh well, there was always the cooking portion to conquer!  I figured, I still had this thing.  I got this, I thought.  I got this. HA! Strikes 4 and 5 here.


Turning Salsa into Sauce
The cooking portion was to make a Yellow Tail Snapper, either using one of the recipes provided, or to make our own, signature, Key West-inspired dish.  Always one to want to be different, I decided to do what I do best, just cook and work with the ideas that work for me.  The makings of a tropical salsa were on hand - I embellished with more Tequila, using the onions, jalapeños, peppers, tomatoes, mangoes, limes, oranges, garlic and bananas on hand.  Slamming Margarita Tropical salsa whipped together.  Cut the fish into two pieces. Filleted them open, stuffed some of the salsa into the fish. rolled them up, pinned them together with toothpicks that I brought (always prepared!), and let the fish marinate with the salsa for a bit. Then I saluted the fish roulades that I made, to brown them on the outside and finished them in the oven.  I took the rest of the salsa and divided into two portions.  One I cooked down into a sauce, the other I left as a tropical salsa fresca.

My finished fish featured Margarita Salsa 3-Ways: Cooked, Sauted and Fresh.  My fish was amazing! I got this! I got this!  Until I didn't have it.  The fish looked beautiful.  It as fresh, perfectly cooked and had true magazine photo spread appeal.  The judges seemed to like it.  The flavors were nuanced, I had that whole, layers of flavor thing going that I love to do.  I was hopeful, even a bit gleeful that I might just maybe win for best fish dish.  Doh!  Strike 6.

The very fun, engaging and charismatic fellas, Steve McCann and Chris Balbi of PhillyGayCalendar, won for best fish dish.  I think they used (and maybe bribed the judges?!!) the bottle of Kahlua they brought.  However they cooked their fish, according to Hugh E. Dillon of Philly ChitChat, their dish had a secret kick of ginger.  I'll give them props - they were a fun duo.

In the end, I had a great time, I saw a few friends, realized I knew a bunch more people, who I had wished I had the chance to talk with at the party, and I went home feeling really good about my cooking ability.  We also went home with a great swag bag filled with some fantastic goodies, in a  beautiful Lands-End Style tote bag.  It was fun.  I learned things.  It was a good night out.  It's not always about winning, it is about how you play the game, bake the pie, and cook the fish!

There's a cool video on YouTube that captured the event as it happened. I'm in it, barely, just look for the dork in the chef's jacket that's not an employee or student at The Restaurant School! Lol.  Here's the link!  https://youtu.be/xOJ3IvoriKs



Comments

  1. You looked like you were having a blast! Like you, I'm a good cook but not a baker. That would have done me in at go. I'm sure it was a fun networking event, too. Congrats on stepping up and showing your stuff!!
    xob

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