Chicagoans test their skills on ‘America’s Best Cook’
Stephanie Goldfarb has been cooking since she was 6 years old.
“I came from a big Jewish family with a lot of hungry people,” said the Arizona native who now calls Edgewater home. “I have two older brothers and they were always starving, so it was my job to feed them.”
These days, her job is working with teens at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. But her passion is cooking, a skill that landed the 29-year-old a spot on Food Network’s “America’s Best Cook,” the latest addition to TV’s ever-expanding pantry of culinary competitions. (The well-seasoned “Top Chef” on Bravo, embarking on season 12 this fall, remains the gold standard.)
Debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday and hosted by former Chicagoan Ted Allen (“Chopped”), “America’s Best Cook” features 16 home chefs vying for a $50,000 prize.
Contestants face a series of challenges — elevating everyday dishes to innovative restaurant cuisine, transforming savory ingredients into sweet treats — hoping to avoid elimination in the weekly “pressure cooker” round. Who’s sent packing is up to a revolving roster of guest judges, including Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell.
The amateur toques are divided into four teams, with each squad being mentored by celeb chefs Cat Cora, Tyler Florence, Alex Guarnaschelli and Michael Symon.
“When Michael chose me to be on his team I was terrified,” said Goldfarb, a longtime vegetarian. “He’s the king of meat.”
Goldfarb recently became an omnivore again, but she’d only cooked meat a handful of times prior to going on the show, filmed in New York City.
“What better way than to learn from the master?” she said about Symon, co-host of ABC’s daytime chatfest “The Chew.”
“Of course, the first challenge was a meat and potatoes challenge — not my wheelhouse,” said Goldfarb, who hosts a supper club for 10 people in her home each month to raise money for the Chicago Women’s Health Center, where she’s a board member. Tickets cost $55 to $75 and can be bought online at sevenspecies.org.
“I tend to cook mainly vegetarian,” said the avid bread baker. “I don’t like fussy food.”
One of her competitors, Ramzi Khairallah of Lake View, takes a different approach to his cuisine.
“Most of my cooking is sous vide, so it takes a long time to cook,” he said about the prolonged, low-temperature method that doesn’t necessarily translate well to cooking competitions with time restrictions. Ironically, his dad owned a fast-food restaurant when he was growing up in Canada.
Like Goldfarb, he tried out for the show by bringing a homemade dish — pork belly with lavender and orange zest — to the Wooden Spoon in Andersonville last fall.
“I happened to have made it a few days before so I showed up with leftovers,” said Khairallah, 30, a heart research scientist at Loyola University Chicago.
“I do the complete opposite of healthy cooking; the more butter, the better,” said the father of a toddler. “I have a very high faith in my research that if I get heart disease, I’ll be able to cure myself.”