Some recipes are winners. Passed from grandmother to granddaughter on crumbly, yellowed slips of paper and begged for across checkered tablecloths at summertime potluck barbecues, they’re savored every time they’re whipped into existence.
And then, some recipes are real winners, selected by people who know food to compete showdown-style against all the beloved Jell-O molds, granny cakes and casseroles being chilled, beaten and baked across this great nation.
Two East Valley women — Jenny Flake of Gilbert and Marie Belfiglio of Chandler — make recipes like that. They’ll prepare their original dishes today and March 9, respectively, on Food Network’s “Ultimate Recipe Showdown,” a series that pits everyday foodies against each other for a $25,000 prize and the chance to have their recipe adapted to the menu at T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants.
‘I’m a complete amateur’
The enormous cardboard box filling the entry hall of Jenny Flake’s Gilbert home is the first clue that this part-time dental hygienist and Pilates instructor is no ordinary home cook. Addressed to the 2007 National Cornbread Festival Cook-off Winner, the box contains a top-of-the-line stainless steel gas range, and it came with a $5,000 cash prize.
“I’m a complete amateur,” insists 31-year-old Flake, whose fanciest kitchen appliance is a motion-sensing garbage can that opens its own lid.
The self-taught cook rode to first place in the cornbread tourney on the pillow-soft golden “shell” of a chicken-topped cornbread taco baked in an iron skillet, a recipe she devised after researching the contest’s past winners.
Other contests have netted Flake a $10,000 prize for coconut shrimp, a $5,000 kitchen makeover from Home Depot, and all-expense-paid trips to Portland, Ore., Orlando, Fla., and Hollywood, Calif. She aims to enter four or five competitions per year.
Flake’s interest in cooking was ignited when she and her husband moved out of their college digs and into their own home in 2001.
“I had this brand-new kitchen and no clue what to do with it. I didn’t know how to cook at all,” says the mother of two boys, ages 2 and 5. She set out to teach herself by watching the Food Network, reading cookbooks and experimenting.
By the time she saw a commercial for the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest in 2004, her kitchen chops — and not just the apricot-glazed pork variety — had improved considerably. She entered, unaware that the 43-year-old tournament with a purse of $1 million is known among competitive amateur cooks as “the mother of all cooking competitions.” Flake wound up a finalist, a big accomplishment for a home cook just out of the gate.
“I discovered I have a knack for creating recipes,” she says. “If you had asked me five years ago what I’d be doing today, I definitely wouldn’t have said I’d be entering cooking contests.”
The Pepita Crusted Cheddar Jack Southwest Chicken Mac she makes on “Ultimate Recipe Showdown” is a combination of original recipes she submitted to three other cooking contests. The dish melds a four-cheese macaroni with Southwestern-spiced chicken and a toasted pumpkin seed topping.
Flake, who mixed her dish on daytime TV shows “Sonoran Living” and “Arizona Midday” last week, will get to see her performance in the Food Network cook-off for the first time when it airs today at 10 p.m.
The experience has inspired her to ponder publishing a cookbook one day.
“I’ve got no desire to start catering or open a restaurant,” says Flake, who admires Ina Garten of “Barefoot Contessa” but says most days she’s more like “Semi-Homemade’s” Sandra Lee. “I’m a full-time mom, and I’m just having fun with this.”
‘This is a man’s cake’
Marie Belfiglio likes a stout beer with her cake.
“This is a man’s cake. It’s a have-me-with-some-beer cake,” she says of the four-layer chocolate-peanut confection in the running for ultimate recipe status. “I invented it to bring to the pub for an ex-boyfriend’s birthday.”
Food Network bakers and taste-testers agreed that any salty-sweet treat good enough to stand up to a beer might be able to hold its own in a televised bake-off.
Since traveling to Glendale, Calif., in August for the taping of “Ultimate Recipe Showdown,” the Chandler resident has parlayed her cooking hobby into a budding culinary career.
“Entering the competition has been transformative on a big scale,” says the Arizona State University English master’s degree student. “It definitely gave me the confidence to go out there and say ‘I want to cook for a living.’ It’s not something I imagined I could do before.”
The 25-year-old has cooked for Whole Foods Market in Chandler and Dish Market in Scottsdale. She’s just landed a job working on pastries at Cork in Chandler.
“I don’t know where it’s leading, but I’m getting paid to learn something I love,” says Belfiglio, whose first exposure to cooking came via a childhood spent watching PBS cooking shows with her grandmother, a cook worth her own salt who lived next door. As an adult, Belfiglio counts Anthony Bourdain, Giada De Laurentiis and Tyler Florence among her greatest influences.
“I credit any skills I have to reading, lots and lots of practice, and a dad who will eat anything,” she says, adding that the “Honey, I’m Peanuts About You!” cake she developed for the contest is only the second layer cake she’s ever made in her life.
“I may very well have been the least experienced baker on the show,” she says. “While I was mixing the batter, I was terrified, but fortunately this cake has a lot of steps!” By the time she piped decorative stars around its top, the pressure of baking before a live audience, bright lights and multiple cameras had melted away.
She knows the results of the show, but she and other contestants are sworn to secrecy. She says whether she nets the prize money or not, the experience has been a gift.
“My grandmother was really ill during the time all this was going on,” says Belfiglio. She died shortly after the taping. “No one was more excited to know I was doing this than she was,” says Belfiglio. “She actually took the cake out of the oven for me the first time I made it.”
She’s certain her grandmother would be tickled to know that the little girl who used to sit with her through episodes of Julia Child, Jacque Pepin and “The Frugal Gourmet” is now working in a kitchen.