2018-12-05 / Home

Finale of ABC Festival features ‘Best Chef at the J’ competition

By REA BOCHNER Voice Staff

Winners of the “Best Chef at the J” competition were the “Moroccan Rollers” (from left), Audrey Dahan, Leah Spector, Zev Epstein, and Yoni Panitch. Winners of the “Best Chef at the J” competition were the “Moroccan Rollers” (from left), Audrey Dahan, Leah Spector, Zev Epstein, and Yoni Panitch. An action-packed culinary event made for a grand finale for the Bank of America Festival of Arts, Books, and Culture at the Katz JCC. Sunday, Nov. 18 kicked off with a talk from Vicky Cohen, co-author of the Middle Eastern-inspired cookbook, “Tahini and Turmeric.” Cohen, a resident of Cherry Hill, offered ideas for vegetarian and vegan recipes featuring staples like eggplant, chickpeas, tofu, date syrup, pomegranate molasses, and orange blossom water. Cohen also encouraged the use of spices, including sweet paprika and cardamom to create unique and unforgettable flavors.

Following Cohen was Jeff Oliver, author of the novel “The Two-Plate Solution,” the story of a reality TV cooking show that is infiltrated by terrorists. Oliver drew on his 17 years of experience in reality TV, first as a producer at Bravo, then as an executive at the Food Network, where he founded the hit cooking competition show, “Cutthroat Kitchen.” Oliver spoke about the book, then offered the audience some insights into the world of reality TV development and production, as well as some insider secrets: For example, by the time the contestants’ food is presented to the judges, it’s usually cold. The fact that the audience would never know it is a testament to the judges’ acting chops.

After a Q&A session, Cohen and Oliver became judges themselves for “Best Chef at the J,” South Jersey’s own version of “Cutthroat Kitchen.” Four teams of four contestants were given special ingredients they were required to use—Halvah, cardamom, persimmon, and pomegranate molasses—along with a “pantry” of baskets filled with fruits, vegetables, herbs, couscous, chickpeas, tofu, and more, from which they were to select at least five ingredients. Their task was to create an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert in 30 minutes or less.

Before the competition started, the contestants paced their stations with anticipation. “I’m stressed, excited…I don’t know what to expect,” said Yoni Panitch, 13, of the “Moroccan Rollers.”

“I’m very excited, but nervous!” confessed Eilat Gabbay, a member of the intergenerational team, “Something Special,” with her daughter, Judiana Abrams, and another mother-daughter pair, Liliana Elkouss and Karen Elkouss-Bell.

Dylan Kratchman, age 9, of “Team Eagles,” expressed her excitement and pride at being the youngest competitor at the event.

“This is the most exciting, and possibly the most important culinary competition in the history of South Jersey,” quipped Oliver, in true reality TV fashion. “Who will win remains to be seen…”

With the start of the timer, the audience was free to walk from table to table and watch the teams in action— without offering any help or advice. Almost immediately, JCC host Sabrina Spector called on audience members to select a “sabotage” for each team, in the spirit of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which would make the chefs’ jobs even harder. Some of the challenges included leaving their station to high-five members of the other teams, stopping to hula-hoop or shoot a basketball, and donning sunglasses and JCC Camps t-shirts while cooking. Though all in fun, the tension was clear on the faces of the competitors, who were busy chopping, spicing, running pans to the hot plates and cook tops, and finally, plating their dishes. With the smell of cooking onions and melted chocolate in the air, the final buzzer finally sounded.

Cohen and Oliver walked from table to table, sampling the different creations, including Falafel-stuffed persimmons, chickpea-stuffed eggplants, fruit compote, artichoke dip with lemon, couscous with tofu and beet salad, and a “deconstructed” hummus, which especially impressed Oliver.

“Anything you say is ‘deconstructed’ gets you extra points,” he joked.

Finally, after tasting all the dishes, Oliver and Cohen came to their decision. The winners, for both plating and quality of the dishes, were the “Moroccan Rollers:” Leah Spector, Yoni Panitch, Zev Epstein, and Audrey Dahan. Naturally, the team was over the moon.

“I can’t believe it!” exclaimed Spector.

“This was so much fun!” said Dahan. “Winning is like the cherry on top!”

Though not everyone could go home a winner, it was agreed that fun was had by all. Joked Oliver, “This was the highlight of my culinary life.” 

Return to top