NEW YORK "Ready. Set. Cook."
As the Manischewitz representative started the clock, six women set to work last Thursday in kosher mini-kitchens in the Empire ballroom of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. They were competing in the first annual Manischewitz "Simply Great Jewish Food" cook-off. In honor of the competition, even though he could not attend, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared Feb. 1 as Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off Day.
From left, David Rossi, RAB vice president of marketing, Richard A. Bernstein, RAB owner, cook-off winner Candace McMenamin, and RAB CEO Jeremy Fingerman.
Beginning in May ‘006, Manischewitz sifted through thousands of entries to find 30 to compete in regional qualifying competitions around the country. Six women from New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, and South Carolina were chosen to compete in the final round, using Manischewitz products in their original recipes.
"We wanted to show kosher foods in a new light," said David Rossi, vice president of marketing of RAB Corp., Manischewitz’s parent company. "Many consumers think of the wine, think of the matzoh. We decided the best way to showcase [other Manischewitz products] was to do a competition."
Rayzel Yaish of Bergenfield traveled the shortest distance of the contestants. The psychologist at Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston prepared her Middle Eastern falafel stuffed peppers before the 100-plus crowd, judges, her husband, Ronn, and 70 students who came from Kushner to cheer her on.
"The kids want to show our support for Dr. Yaish," said Barbara Deutsch, principal of Kushner’s middle school. She and the students wore maroon T-shirts with the name "Dr. Pepper," alluding to Yaish’s role as the school psychologist and her dish featuring peppers.
It was Yaish’s husband, a Yemenite Jew, who inspired the concoction. While his wife enjoyed eating stuffed peppers, his Sephardic palate found them too bland. So Rayzel Yaish infused them with "a Sephardic twist," Ronn Yaish said.
"For me, this is heaven," he added.
Contestants were judged not only on the finished product but also on ease of preparation. While they raced to prepare their dishes within the one-hour time limit, the judges roamed the room watching the preparation. The panel of seven judges included the Marriott Marquis’ executive chef, Achilles Polivou; JM in the AM radio host Nachum Segal; Bill Strynkowski, executive chef of Cooking Light magazine; Jacques Sorci, executive chef of the Ritz Carlton Hotels; Liel Leibovitz, a staff writer for The Jewish Week; RAB CEO Jeremy Fingerman; and kosher cookbook author Susie Fishbein. They judged the contestants on the dish’s taste, ease of preparation, appearance, and originality.
Transforming the ballroom into a kosher "Kitchen Stadium" was no easy task. All of the equipment, utensils, and ingredients were carefully monitored, said Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, RAB’s administrative rabbi. Adding to the concern, two of the recipes called for cheese, while others were meat-based. To keep the competition fair, the judges had to taste one dish right after the other.
In the recipes calling for cheese, nondairy substitutes were used, said Rabbi Aron Hayum, the supervisor of RAB’s Newark plant. But one of the recipes called for Morningstar Farms sausage patties, which are certified dairy and for which there is no kosher pareve substitute.
Since the recipe didn’t call for "hard dairy" though, Hayum explained, as long as the judges ate the dairy dishes first and washed them down with water, the contest was still kosher. "Soft" dairy products do not linger in the mouth like cheeses, and so meat can be eaten after a rinsing, he said.
During preparation, Yaish had one advantage over her competitors: four-year-old Ovadya Yaish, who helped his mother mix the lamb and falafel stuffing for her peppers.
"We cook a lot together at home," she said, noting that he knows to stay away from the hot stove.
In the end, though, it was Candace McMenamin from Lexington, S.C., who won with her sweet potato encrusted chicken.
"I was trying to come up with a different way of using chicken," she said after the competition. McMenamin turned to Manischewitz’s Website and downloaded a list of all of the company’s products before coming up with her recipe.
Raising the glass trophy, McMenamin summed up her win. "I’m shocked and thrilled," she said. McMenamin went home with a $’0,000 prize package, including a $15,000 kitchen makeover from GE. All six recipes will be featured on the Manischewitz Website, as well.
"It was really a nice combination of sweet with a little hot," said Jeremy Fingerman of the winning dish. "It was very close for me. There were several that were just excellent."
Fingerman is already thinking about how to improve the competition for next year, including different categories for appetizers and main dishes, and more regional qualifiers.
Even though her peppers did not make the final cut, Yaish was not bitter.
"I feel good," she said. "I definitely did my best." This was her first cooking competition and she is getting hooked on the idea, she added.
Susie Fishbein, author of the Kosher By Design series of cookbooks who occasionally appears on cooking shows, is used to being under pressure in the kitchen. So as a judge she empathized with the contestants.
"I was more nervous for those women than my own cooking shows," she said after the contest. "These women were the epitome of grace under pressure."
Although the sweet potato chicken received the highest combined score from the judges, Fishbein was partial to Yaish’s stuffed peppers. "They were the most unique fusion of flavors," she said.
For the six winning recipes, go to www.Manischewitz.com