Three of the competitors at the fifth annual Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-Off last week couldn’t turn their ovens on.
That wasn’t due to technical difficulties. But since these competitors weren’t Jewish, they had to have others start the cooking process for them, so that all the food at the event could remain kosher.
Amid much fanfare in the basement of the JCC in Manhattan on a rainy Thursday last week, the five contestants — narrowed down from a field of more than 3,000 applicants — chopped, fried, sautéed and simmered their submitted recipes in front of an eager crowd.
Each dish had to include two products — one of which was broth — made by Manischewitz, a century-old company known for matzah and wine in addition to cookies, soups and pasta. The day began with a proclamation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, naming the day “Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-Off Day.”
In the end, Stuart Davis of Cherry Hill, N.J., took home the top prize after cooking his “Chicken and Egg Donburi,” a Japanese dish that he started preparing when he taught English in Japan. He used a wasabi dip made by Manischewitz to round out the recipe.
Davis, the lone male and one of two Jewish participants in the competition, wasn’t selected as a finalist by the judges. Instead he was voted in by online users, from among four other semifinalists posted on the Manischewitz website.
“I had my students [at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill] voting, and my wife had her students voting,” said Davis, of his online success. The 45-year-old father of four, who teaches Hebrew at the Conservative congregation, took home the $25,000 prize package, which includes a new dishwasher, oven and fridge from General Electric.
The panel of judges, headed by celebrity chef Jacques Pepin, awarded Davis the trophy and prize by a tiny margin; he received only a half point more than the second-place contestant.
The other finalists, who hailed from Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia, brought an eclectic mix of flavors. One contestant’s “Simple Fisherman’s Stew” featured fennel and saffron, while another’s “Golden Sweet Potato Tagine” was flavored with plums, honey and garam masala.
Luckily, the 100-member audience didn’t have to wait until the contestants were done cooking for a sample: each of the competitors’ recipes was recreated by a catering service and available for tasting.
As the contenders cooked their dishes, the hosts, judges and viewers watched their kitchen skills and techniques. “I just like to see how comfortable contestants are in the kitchen,” said Lauren Salked, an editor at Epicurious.com and one of the judges. “I want to see if it seems doable for the home cook.”
Though the contestants came from varied backgrounds, they all were eager to adapt to kosher ingredients. “It would be ignorant to limit myself to one cuisine,” said Naylet LaRochelle, as she chopped pistachios for her “Moroccan Chicken Bowl.” LaRochelle, a competitor from Miami who said she is Catholic and of Cuban heritage, was inspired to enter by her Jewish co-worker, and sees Moroccan flavors as a new trend. “It packs a lot of flavor without being too complicated.”
Suzanne Banfield, a contestant from Basking Ridge, N.J., who cooked a fisherman’s stew, said she discovered kosher food after she was diagnosed with Celiac disease, and cut gluten and dairy out of her diet. “I’ve become an obsessive label reader,” she said. “I go nuts at Passover,” when many items are gluten free.
Other competitors received inspiration from TV personalities, like Dina Burcat, a Baltimore contestant who created her “Shallot Smothered Chicken” after seeing celebrity chef Rachael Ray use shallots in a pasta dish. “I’ve cooked this for Shabbat dinner with my friends,” she said.
The diverse backgrounds of the contestants came as no surprise to Alain Bankier, co-CEO of Manischewitz. “It says that Manischewitz products are good for everybody,” said Bankier. “It’s just great food that happens to be kosher.”