A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend the California Regional Finals for the Second Annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest, held at the Art Institute of California in San Diego.
Two contestants were chosen as winners of the $1,000 regional prize and a spot to compete in the finals for the grand prize of $10,000 plus a one year supply of fresh Foster Farms chicken. Last year, the grand prize went to a local San Diegan: Alexandria Boswell from La Jolla, CA!
As an avid viewer of cooking show competitions, and always envious of guests who get to sample the winning recipes, I was excited to be able to attend and taste. Even better, I was able to take along the FH as my guest.
Once we arrived, we were placed in a viewing room where we could watch some of the action happening in the kitchen. We also were provided with an assortment of beverages and breakfast items like cereal bars, pastries, fresh fruit and yogurt.
We took a seat at a random table and I introduced myself to the woman already seated. As luck would have it, I was sitting next to the mother of one of the contestants, Jennifer Daskevich, who had flown from Texas to support her daughter.
Out of close to 2,000 entrants, five recipes were chosen for the California Regional Finals. The recipes and chefs are:
- Chicken and Quinoa with Figs, Spinach and Mint by Jennifer Daskevich (Los Angeles, CA)
- Pulled Chicken Sliders with Hoisin BBQ Sauce & Pickled Slaw by Jackie Dodd (Glendale, CA)
- Olive and Lemon Poached Tuscan Chicken on Grilled Pitas with Spinach Spread by Jamie Brown-Miller (Napa, CA)
- Asian Braised Chicken Thighs with Soybean Salad by Roxanne Chan (Albany, CA)
- Pretzel Chicken Tenders by Pascal Vignau (Encinitas, CA)
Jennifer’s mom was very nice and explained how everything would work. Contestants were given 90 minutes to complete their recipes. Then their food would be plated by one of the chefs at the culinary institute. Simultaneously, other students and chefs at the Culinary school would be following the contestants’ recipes to prepare the tasting samples for the audience. Looking at the schedule, I thought time would crawl by slowly, but everything moved relatively fast. It helped that all the contestants finished early, so samples were soon flowing.
We were each provided a booklet containing the contestants’ recipes, a short bio, as well as the winning recipes from the previous year.
The judges consisted of Elaine Johnson, editor Sunset Magazine, Christine Ross, editor San Diego Union-Tribune, Sam Zien, host of Just Cook This and Cathy Thomas, contributor and former food editor, Orange County Register. The most notable guest judge was of course Sam Zien, also known as Sam the Cooking Guy. A lot of people got pictures and autographs with him after. He was gracious and patient enough to accommodate everyone’s requests.
Soon after the chefs began to cook, I was allowed inside the kitchen to take photos. The competition kitchens were divided into two separate kitchens.
First, I visited the kitchen with contestants Jennifer Daskevich, Pascal Vignau (who owns Savory restaurant in Encinitas), and Jamie Brown-Miller. Because the recipes are ones simple enough that you should be able to recreate in your own home, the kitchen was relatively stress free. Each contestant was given an assistant to help them as well.
Then I went into the kitchen which could be viewed from the judging room. Here, both contestants were almost completely done. I only arrived in time to see Roxanne Chan put some finishing touches on her dish.
I watched as the chefs from the school worked on plating and getting samples out to the audience. Then I quickly made my way back out to the audience so I could taste my samples.
In addition to the two winners chosen by the judges, the audience got to vote on their favorite as well and the winner of the People’s Choice vote would be given a big gift basket.
Out of all my samples, my favorite was the Chicken and Quinoa and Figs. The chicken was moist, the quinoa had a slight crispness to it, and the figs added a little bit of sweetness. (As a side note, after I sampled this dish, I ended being obsessed with fig eating over the next week and a half.) It just so happened that my favorite dish was made by Jennifer Daskevich. Soon Jennifer came to join her mom. She was visibly tense and nervous and couldn’t eat a bite of the samples.
Another contestant, Roxanne Chan, then joined us as well. She was so nice. In her bio, it mentions that she has won over 845 recipe contests! But you wouldn’t know it talking to her. She was so sweet and humble. The only thing that gave away her experience was the fact that she wasn’t the least bit stressed.
Then it was time for the winners to be announced. As we watched the judges discussing, the tension definitely grew. Despite not having any personal involvement, FH and I both felt ourselves getting quite nervous for the contestants. I felt strongly enough about Jennifer’s dish that I was pretty sure she would walk away with at least the audience’s choice award, but I didn’t say anything.
Finally, the winners were announced. First, they gave a big gift basket for the audience choice: Jennifer Daskevich! Jennifer wasn’t actually that thrilled she had won because she was afraid this meant she didn’t win one of the two final spots. But the Foster Farms representative assured her that she still could.
Then it was time to announce the winners of the $1000 check and spot in the finals. First winner was Roxanne Chan. She looked so shocked.
Then they announced the second winner, Jennifer again! Both Jennifer and her mom were crying tears of joy. I felt so lucky to be sitting at the table with both of the winners and having spent the morning with Jennifer’s mom.
It was such a fun experience and want to thank Toby Baird and the rest of his team at Fineman PR for giving me the opportunity to attend the event.