As the final episode of Kosher.com’s “Food Fight” begins, Rorie Weisberg of Monsey cautiously lifts the white kitchen towel covering the secret ingredient she must incorporate into a savory and a sweet dish.
“Oh shoot,” she blurts dispiritedly as she reveals several varieties of packaged puff pastry dough.
“I’ve never touched puff pastry. I don’t even know what it looks like, what it feels like, how long it takes to bake. I don’t know what to do with it,” Ms. Weisberg confides on camera.
And yet Ms. Weisberg was chosen the winner of the kosher cooking contest, whose three final rounds were filmed at the DoubleTree Hilton in Tarrytown. Her on-the-fly creations in the August 8 finale, Deli Roll Cabbage Surprise with Crisp ‘N’ Crunchy Salad and Apple Strudel Topped with Pure Pudding and Nuts, wowed the judges.
Ms. Weisberg is a recipe developer, a featured chef on Kosher.com, where her recipes are posted, and a columnist for Mishpacha magazine’s Family Table cooking section. She started her own health-coaching business, Full ‘n Free, three years ago. She developed several dough mixes for people who want gluten-free, low-carb, or egg-free baked goods; she believes everyone should eat what is best for their body.
Last December, when Kosher.com’s editor in chief, Chanie Nayman, asked Ms. Weisberg to be one of 10 participants in “Food Fight,” she protested that her simple, health-focused recipes were not geared to a competition. “Chanie said, ‘Don’t worry. Just stay true to your style and your brand.’”
In the first six rounds of the contest, the chefs received a secret ingredient to incorporate into an original dish. The recipes and photos were published in the magazine and posted online, and readers voted for their favorites. On that basis, one contestant was eliminated in each round until four remained to compete in the three televised finals.
“The first secret ingredient we had to use was noodles, and I asked if I could have gluten-free or whole-wheat noodles, but I couldn’t,” Ms. Weisberg said. “So I built something around the noodles that felt like me. Surprisingly, people liked it. I guess people are looking for healthier options and that’s great.”
Many of the secret ingredients in “Food Fight” hardly could be described as health food. So when Ms. Weisberg was confronted with items like pastrami, she quickly — within the 30-minute time limit — thought how to combine it with lighter ingredients for a balanced dish. She used the pastrami to stuff chicken cutlets, accompanied by riced cauliflower and sautéed vegetables. In one preliminary round she used a few tablespoons of the mandatory duck fat to create a meal of rib-eye steak, baby potatoes, and kale chips.
“I’m not a nutritionist,” she said. “My approach is about making peace with your body. My focus is on gaining health, not losing weight. I’m not extreme about healthy ingredients because being super rigid isn’t healthy either.
“I don’t demonize less healthy ingredients but I’ll surround them with better ingredients. For instance, with the puff pastry I didn’t use sugar or whipped cream.”
Perhaps even harder than thinking up recipes under pressure was honoring a signed agreement not to reveal the results of “Food Fight” from the time the finals were taped in May until they aired on three consecutive Wednesdays starting July 25.
Ms. Weisberg managed not to tell anyone — not her mother, not her sister, not her best friend, not her husband, Michael, and none of their four children, who range in age from 8 to 18. She had been clear from the start that she was going into “Food Fight” to have fun.
“I wasn’t driven to compete or win, just to go and do my best,” she said.
She’s quite happy with the grand prize, however, a $5,000 gift certificate to Town Appliance in Lakewood. She says she has been saving up for years to redo her kitchen. (The runner-up, Rivky Kleiman of Lakewood, won a wine refrigerator stocked by Royal Wine Corporation.)
Ms. Weisberg, 39, grew up in Cleveland and has been living in Monsey for 14 years.
Of course, everyone wants to know what she cooks at home for her family. “People always ask me if I’m serving tofu and sprouted veggies on Shabbos,” she said with a laugh.
“I actually try to make all the standard normal traditional foods, like potato kugel and cholent, but my goal is to use more wholesome ingredients. For example, I don’t make fried schnitzel but I make a breaded chicken with celery root. I use healthy fats like olive or avocado oil instead of canola, sea salt instead of table salt. When I make cookies and brownies, I use coconut sugar, maple syrup, or natural fruit instead of white sugar.”
Once the “Food Fight” finale aired, Ms. Weisberg was an instant local celebrity. Even a non-Jewish bank teller said to her husband, “Oh, I heard your wife was in ‘Food Fight!’”
“Everywhere I go, people come over to me,” she said. “The nicest thing is that people saw the ‘healthy’ chef won and that is awesome. It shows that healthy foods can be delicious and actually win a cooking contest. It shows that making healthier food choices can become your go-to habit.”
Those first few difficult moments after she whipped the towel off the puff pastry may have thrown her for a loop. But now whenever she’s confronted with a situation that similarly causes her to freeze, Ms. Weisberg tells herself, “Don’t get stuck on the puff pastry!”