Eye on the Prize

Crafting my first post, I had no idea where this blog would lead.  Six years later, it still boggles my mind. One month I'm dining with Food Network stars and the next, I'm bonding with butchers. I love the journey...and exploring new opportunities.

And that's how I ended up at the Third Annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest.

Perhaps a little background is in order. Foster Farms Cooking Contest is divided into state-wide competitions, taking place in Washington, Oregon, and California. Those regional winners will travel later this month to Napa's Culinary Institute of America campus for the final competition. Grand prize? $10,000.

But first, contestants need to make it through the Washington state leg of the competition. I've got my camera  and an all access pass. Come along with me.

The competition site: chef Kathy Casey's Food Studio in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood

Guests were greeted with a lavish display of cheeses and seasonal fruit. The grape leaves and fennel fronds were harvested behind Kathy's studio.

Whipping up cocktails is Kathy's husband, John Casey.

Look at these lovely cocktail garnishes. In the middle? Those iridescent jewels are pretty, but sour. At this stage of development, there's a high seed-to-fruit ratio...which makes them a better garnish than eating fruit. 

From over 1,200 entries, five were selected to compete in the Washington leg. Coincidence? These two ladies are from the same town! Rebecca Cameron on the left, and Donna Beck on the right, from Bonney Lake, WA. 

Minutes before the competition begins, there's a buzz of activity behind the scenes--three camera folk and multiple people Tweeting. No pressure!

Sandra Gray...calm and ready for action. Contestants must finish their dish in 90 minutes. To get her timing down, Sandra established a schedule and practiced her dish weekly.

Tools of the trade.

To created a level playing field, competition organizers supply all the ingredients--no outside food or equipment is allowed. Rebecca Cameron examines the ingredients she's been given.

And we're off! Working with unfamiliar equipment...presents its own set of challenges. During the competition, Rebecca's blender mysteriously kept shutting off. She'd get it working again, then...nothing. Eventually, she muddled through. 

Donna's taco dish is an easy weeknight meal. Here, she's preparing the rub.

Brush the all natural chicken breasts with olive oil.

Then massage the chicken with a rub of cumin, chili powder, ground espresso, salt, and pepper. (To distinguish competitor's dishes, notice Donna's name is taped to the sheet pan.)

Kathy Casey's staff prepared samples for the guests. First round: Donna's chicken tacos.

Contestants prepare four platings: three for the judges and one for photos. Here, Donna puts the final touch on her dish.

Cocktails? Sangria for a crowd.

Among the strainers and whisks...a little bling from New Orleans.

 Erwin Santiago with another round of samples. 

Julie Merriman is a cooking contest pro. Does she look familiar? Julie won Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown. She left nothing to chance when entering the Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest--with fifteen recipe submissions! The final recipe selected? Cumin and Coriander Spiced Chicken with Pistachio Crumble and Pomegranate Olive Salad.

Uh oh! Panic struck when Brandi's dish didn't come together according to plan. With too much liquid in the pan, her chicken tenders didn't caramelize. Eventually, she drained off some liquid. Each contestant is allowed only one burner, so she waited until the chicken finished cooking, then reduced the remaining sauce separately.  Brandi's dish: Coffee Glazed Chicken Tenders with Hazelnut Confetti Quinoa 

The judges finalize their numbers. On the left, Table Talk radio host and PR maven, Jamie Peha. Center: Chef, author, and mixologist, Kathy Casey. Right: International Association of Culinary Professionals board president and author, Cynthia Nims.

Waiting for the final announcement, contestants gather for a photo: (L-R) Sandra Gray, Brandi Morang, Julie Merriman, Donna Beck, and Rebecca Cameron.

And the winners are....
(Drum roll)

Sandra Gray won with her Cherry and Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken with Merlot Scented Lentils and Rebecca Cameron won for her Tea Rubbed Chicken with Apple Spinach Salad and Spicy nuts. They each won $1,000 and will be headed to Napa for the finals later this month.