I arrived home after working late last night and headed over to the Recipe to Riches Facebook sight I follow hoping for some news about what had happened on last night's episode and WHOA! Although there is often a little controversy generated by the show - Canadians aren't always in full agreement over the recipes chosen to be President's Choice items - I've never seen people so ramped up, and over Hors d'Oeuvres no less!
The finalists in the Hors d'Oeuvres category were Jackie Koh from Vancouver with her recipe for Smokey Korean Meatballs, Benjamin Greenberg from Montreal with his recipe for Curry Crab Sticks, and Belen Welch who is originally from Ecuador and now calls new Brunswick home with Quinoa Cumin Bites.
While I watched the bios, I enjoyed the diversity of the finalists and the differences in their personalities. I related to Benji and his passion for cooking and developing recipes, loved Belen's spirit and her idea to turn quinoa into an appetizer, and was intrigued by Jackie and her passion for sweet, salty, spicy flavours because these are ingredient passions that I share.
The episode began with the batch up challenge and I was immediately shocked that our home cooks were going to have to batch up 500 servings of their recipe. In the episode I was in, we were required to produce 300 samples and, trust me, that was more than enough!
While I could see the 500 challenge being attainable for Jackie and Belan, I felt for Benjamin as his Curried Crab Sticks looked like they were going to be slightly more intricate to put together. I was also developing a natural affinity for this charismatic young cook because he too was wearing a blue apron, which meant he would be cooking with Chef Maggie just as I did, and I became more and more excited as the ingredients for his crab sticks were revealed! Mountains of beautiful fresh crab were surrounded by mangoes, and lime, and as I envisioned it all coming together with the tastes and textures of ginger, garlic, panko, and coriander in a coconut batter my mouth began to water. This was going to be amazing!
Not to be outdone, Belan's savoury quinoa was infused with fresh vegetables, hints of smokey cumin, and then rolled into lovely little bites infused with cream cheese - I know, YUMM!
Finally, Jackie's meatballs looked like they'd be hitting all the right notes with fresh herbs, ginger, garlic, and - most exciting to me - finished on the barbecue and smoked - a technique I am going to be trying at home!
When the culinary games began, drama started to unroll in the kitchen like a big multi-layered onion.
On that note, Jackie insisted on fresh squeezed onion juice to the apparent chagrin of her chef mentor Jason Rosso, and though it was here where began to see her tougher side, I admired Jackie. I love that she tasted all of her ingredients and stuck to her guns - that kind of chutzpah is what I was lacking and part of what I believe led to my own demise in the competition.
That and the half naked cheer leaders.
Belan ran into some seasoning issues, and Benji looked as though he might suffer a snacktastrophe similar to my own with his dough and those cursed deep fryers. However, with the help of their mentors and a little ingenuity, all three finalists got it together and came up with delicious looking offerings.
When it came time to present their food to the judges all three had winning dishes, and, quite frankly, deserve our collective admiration for batching up 500 servings in the allotted three hours - when all was said and done, though, someone had to go home and that someone this episode was Belan.
Belan, great job - I can't wait to try your recipe. You have my good wishes and thoughts that you will be able to go home and visit your family and your dad.
Now it was time for the marketing challenge. Though the batch up was, for me, the favourite part of my Recipe to Riches experience, meeting the marketing team comes in a close second because they were so fun and positive.
The teams began by deliberating marketing strategies and product names. Benji decided on Spiked Coconut Crab Bites and Jackie - who the marketing experts identified as being regal - named her product "Empress Meatballs."
People, I can't help myself. Watching Jackie dead pan into the camera that she was flattered by the reference brought me a moment of pure Reality TV joy and took my Recipe to Riches viewing experience to a whole new level. Love a person or not, it's personalities like Jackie's and Benjamin's that make for good TV and have us talking about an episode long after its over.
Meanwhile, the marketing challenge. Benjamin came up with a great idea to feature an upscale food cart and I again felt that same affinity toward him that I'd been having throughout the episode because somehow his wonderful upscale idea morphed into a circus event - an event I don't think honoured the delicate complexity of his dish. To me, the circus atmosphere contributed to what Benjamin didn't want - for his product to be just another example of food on a stick.
However, Benjamin impressed me to no end when Jackie walked into the challenge area and it became apparent they would be competing head to head for customers - instead of being intimidated, Benji's response was "She should be nervous with me cooking next to her."
And the challenge was on.
Both finalists worked hard to get their product out there and I have to say, I had a new found appreciation for my own experience. Though Stephen and I had some healthy competition going, neither of us would ever have tasted the other's recipe and made a disparaging remark. Not so much for Jackie, who took one of Benjamin's bites, tasted it, and deemed it too salty - on camera, and to Benjamin in person.
Unfortunately, this may have quite the backlash in the court of popular opinion. Especially since Benjamin came across as a genuinely nice person.
In the end, though, the judges chose Jackie's meatballs as the winning product and I understand why because they truly look delicious. The only thing though, is that I will opt to make them at home instead of buying them because meatballs are so straightforward.
On the other hand, I would have bought Benjamin's product because it isn't something that I could quickly and easily whip up at home, and it's absolutely something I would want to eat and serve - especially over the holidays.
As always, though, I want to wish both cooks all the very best and extend my congratulations for coming up with amazing recipes and giving the viewing audience one of the best episodes of Recipe to Riches ever.
Oh! And special kudos to Dana McCauley who's one liner: "They didn't say Oh My Empress it's good?" made me spurt the tea I was drinking out my nose.
Onward to episode 5 where I can't wait to see my friend Mary Rocto in action!!
And Benjamin, a special note... I agree with you, this isn't the last the Food Network will be seeing of you. Your recipe impressed the heck out of me and I will be making it.
If anyone's curious, my featured video this week tells the story of my journey on season 1 of Recipe to Riches along with my recipe for "Gobblers" and an easy to make adaptation for home cooks in a hurry!
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