Sears Chef Challenge

Chef Billy Parisi with me and my fellow judges, BBQ King Ted Reader and Chef Meg Rickman

You know what most mothers of toddlers dream about? I mean, besides that their children will grow up healthy and strong and achieving all of their hearts' desires? Multiple nights alone in a luxury hotel room with nary a sippy cup in sight, that’s what. Thank you, Sears Chef Challenge, for providing me with such a glorious experience. Oh, and getting the opportunity to help judge the actual competition--with its amazing energy, high drama and delectable food in the greatest city in the world--was pretty incredible, too.

The competition floor in the heat of the challenge!

I arrived in my hometown of Chicago the evening before the competition, and was whisked off in a fancy car to a fabulous downtown hotel. After checking in and rolling like a Labrador in wet grass all over the plush, pristine king-size bed that was to be mine alone for the next two nights, I made a quick change and set out in search of dinner. In what was probably the most boring first meal in Chicago choice ever, exhausted and bloated with airline carbohydrates, I went out in search of an enormous salad, and headed to a Whole Foods down the street, which so happened to be one I’d visited often during my days working at that job from which I’d asked to be fired. I took my time walking there, reminiscing about my old days as a free-wheeling Chicago single all the while.

With the warm fall breeze drifting about, the gorgeous urban landscape of my hometown hugging me all around, and those Chicago folks who are just so dang nice holding doors and offering smiles, it was hard to hold back my misty eyes, my heart bursting with Windy City love. I called up the husband and demanded we move back to Chicago. The husband reminded me that it was October, and had it been January, I’d be crying for the next plane back to California. Trivial matters.

The VIP lounge area for all the Twitter enthusiasts giving updates throughout the Challenge

The next day held a bit more lovely free time for me to roam about the city and buy completely unpractical shoes, and by late afternoon I was all dressed up and reporting to the Kenmore Studio for the main event. This place was seriously impressive—an enormous broadcast studio-meets-shiny-appliance-showroom. It was all decked out for the night’s competition with comfy lounge and bar areas, gleaming mini-kitchens for the chefs and a long, glossy table for the narrow-eyed, discerning judges.

Event co-host Michelle Alegria grills the judges and works the crowd

Once we went live, the energy was terrific. A sizable crowd showed up to cheer on the chefs and the charities for which they were all competing, their enthusiasm fueled by free-flowing drinks and some seriously awesome appetizers of all sorts. The 30 minutes of cooking time zipped by and before I knew it, I was making snap judgements on everyone’s dishes. Some might say this was my life’s calling—getting all dressed up, eating food and then judging people—but that is neither here nor there.

Insanely gorgeous bounty from Whole Foods

The chefs were all so lively and so unique in their personalities, it was exciting to see how that would come across on their plates. All four chefs had to incorporate acorn squash, Brussels sprouts, nutmeg and apples into their dishes, but beyond that, they could do whatever they wanted. And something they all happened to use was bacon. Because those chefs aren’t stupid.

The dynamic Chef Lovely presents her dishes to the judges

All of the dishes were good, of course, but certain elements really wowed. For instance, I’m looking at you, bacon fat candle, lit by Chef Dino and drizzled over my Brussels sprouts. Chef Murphy's pork chop with pan-roasted apples was pure autmunal splendor, and I also loved the tangle of goodies in the dish made by Chef Friedman, a beautiful jumble of greens, vegetables and a smattering of pomegranate seeds with a few slices of perfectly cooked lamb on top.

Chef Friedman's finished plate

It was an incredibly tough job to score the dishes—the pressure, I tell you!—but I tried my best to give fair scores in the few seconds we were given to make a decision, and suppress my urge to yell, “Can I change my answer?!” as the microphone passed by after I’d given my feedback. In the end, Chef Dino, with his innovative flavors and clean, creative plating, came out on top to win $10,000 for his charity and advance to the finals.

All the chefs cooked their hearts out and it was an incredible evening full of people who truly love food. Many, many thanks to the good people at Sears for allowing me to be a guest judge for the last round of the semi-finals. I felt so insanely lucky to be a part of the whole thing. I’m pumped to check out who will win at the finals, and hey, you should too! You can check out the competition on November 4th on the Sears Chef Challenge website.

You can watch video of the event on the POC Media page. Thanks so much to co-host and fellow food blogger Chef Rachelle Boucher for sharing some of her photos with me!

Life Stories, NewsShauna Sever