"Can You Top This?"

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t… you are right”

 

I knew I could win that contest. The culinary magazine sported a small advertisement for professional chefs. “Can you top this?” read the headline. It was a call for entries for toppings for a new commercial product for the commercial food service market- the Boboli Pizza crust.  Of course I could top it.  Of all the cooking skills I had learned over the years, it was the simple creative challenge of the sandwich or the pasta topping – the foil required against the blank screen of bread or linguini that I most enjoyed. The winner was promised a trip to Italy for two and spending money to boot.  I was already yearning to go with Buck and had already begun hyperventilating at the prospective cost of such a trip.  Wouldn’t it be nice for us to go free?

I clipped the ad and laid it in the “in box” on my desk already over-flowing with recipes, tax forms and photos of the kids I had not gotten around to framing.

I forgot about it until one morning when I decided I would tackle the pile of papers in that box.  The ad slipped out and onto the floor when I lifted the top layer of random papers.

I picked it up and leaned back in my chair and re-read the contest rules.  I still knew I could win this contest. I had one month until the entry deadline. I immediately started writing ideas for toppings.   Once those creative juices get going a certain kind of mania comes over me and it is hard to put down the pen. Some ideas form quickly, and then simmer a bit until I can find the words to describe the balance of ingredients. Part of my brain goes into “zone” where the electrical activity keeps going unattended and in unexpected directions.  The rest of me is on auto-pilot, making simple conversation and robotically moving through the day. When it’s time to go back on task, the product rushes onto paper or into consciousness and surprises me.

Hmm, breakfast pizza- like the one at the Greek pizzeria with feta and egg, or something sweet- a bourbon glazed peach and pecan topping with crème fraiche or cinnamon ice-cream, or maybe a deli flavored creation with spinach, kielbasa, swiss and caraway. How about something Mediterranean with lamb and olive paste and artichokes. I probably had ten different toppings to consider. I’d better get busy.

I wrote a list of ingredients and as usual began subjecting my family to the experiments.  The Boboli crusts were in the grocery so I stocked up on them.  I took a side trip to Chris’s

Pizza to get another taste of their inspiring breakfast pizza to jump off from. I finally decided to have my own little cook-off and narrowed the choices to three: Mediterranean, Breakfast and the Warm Peach topping.  I invited a few friends who sat with my children in the dining room, poured some wine as I presented each pizza for consideration.  The meal went well and I got a chance to tweak the recipes a bit from the comments.

I had to decide which recipes to send and I narrowed it to the Mediterranean topping with lamb and the peach dessert number.   I carefully wrote the recipes in the requested format and sent them off separately.  For some reason I was still sure I would win.  In fact, the day that the finalists were to be announced, I was vaguely perplexed that at the end of the day that I had not received a call or letter.  I still thought I was going to win and this message from the real world seemed more aberrational than discouraging. The next day, as I stood chatting with staff at Proof of the Pudding, the FedEx arrived. No one had to tell me what was inside.  I had been selected as a finalist withtwo others. I was to fly to NYC to prepare my Mediterranean Boboli in the kitchens of the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center in a cook-off with the others.

The weekend of the contest Buck and I flew to New York, my suitcase crowded with a few ingredients I wanted to be sure to have on hand, my case of knives and a chef’s coat which I hardly ever wore.  Was I a real chef? This was a contest for professionals after all. I added a colorful scarf and skipped the toque altogether.  I had never felt at home in those stiff white costumes that conjured memories of maniacal male chefs barking orders in a frenzied kitchen. We checked into our hotel in Times Square.  We were to meet with our contest coordinator, Michael Pierce the next morning for a trip to the kitchens to check things out and to meet the other contestants. 

By then I had seen the titles of the other recipes in contention.  One submitted by a young chef mentioned Roquefort and grapefruit.  I thought the guy would have to be a genius to successfully pull off those flavor pairings and worried a bit about who I was up against.  Likewise, the third contestant was a woman who operated a bed and breakfast on the West Coast and was offering an intriguing quiche-like topping which she served at her establishment. Definitely creative and interesting, I thought.

To quell my jitters I decided to stay focused on my own work and stop making comparisons that would inevitably lead to a doubting mind and impulsive changes. This is where the Zen of cooking comes in.  You have to be prepared both in technique and ingredients, you have to have clarity of vision but you have to also be prepared for the inevitable quirks and culinary accidents that either leave you undone or with an unexpected masterpiece. And the challenge had to do with coaxing out my best effort, not in competing with those of others. This would be a test of my own ability to stay “on center” and that was the only thing I ultimately would have control of.

We had our breakfast meeting and tour, met the famous chef at the rainbow room.  Cooking at the top of the Rockefeller center with a view of Manhattan from the kitchen windows would be a thrill of a lifetime.  We had the afternoon to shop for ingredients and sightsee. I headed to Dean and Delucca to pick up some ingredients—I was surprised that some of the things I thought easy to locate in NYC weren’t so readily available. I fretted a bit, but in my kind of cooking, there is usually a lot of room to adjust as I go along.  After all, where would I find great tomatoes in the middle of winter- so wouldn’t the imported canned Italian plum tomatoes would be best?  I had fortunately brought my own olive paste and some fresh herbs that had survived the milder winters in Atlanta.

The next morning, the contestants met at the car that awaited us outside the hotel and we headed to the Rainbow Room.   We already had a few things in common- we were nervous and we all wanted to go to Italy. We were to be ready to serve our entries to the judges at 12 noon and the winner would be announced to at a press reception to one o’clock.  I set up my work station in the kitchen.  Laying out my equipment and ingredients had a calming effect. I began putting in order my little corner of the world. It consisted of a few square feet of stainless steel, the tray of ingredients and the mental map of where I wanted to go with it all.  This was just me and the thing I loved to do- that I had always loved doing: creating something that tasted good, that filled me with immense satisfaction, something that I could feed to others. I stopped worrying about the end product and focused on each step and taste- the sauce, the size of the lamb pieces, and artichokes, the way the olive oil and paste and rosemary looked drizzled over the cheese and crust, glistening. Before I knew it, it was time to bake the pies.

I hung close to the oven, not knowing if I could trust the heat and temperature in an unfamiliar stove. My years as a caterer, requiring that I walk into a new kitchen, or even somewhere with no kitchen, night after night, and produce a meal had prepared me well. I finally emerged from my cocoon and looked around.

My fellow contestants were struggling.  The spring-form pan around the spinach and cream and egg topping was sticking. The woman from California was using a new and unseasoned pan, a curve in the road that was not anticipated. I went to her aid to unmold the custard-like topping. It tasted wonderful, but had some obvious aesthetic challenges.  Together, we played with garnish to mask the imperfections.

Across the prep table, my friend with the grapefruit and Roquefort topping was having his own crises and needed a steadying hand and encouragement.   The ingredients weren’t the ones he was used to and it was throwing him and the flavors and consistency of his sauce off balance.  We discussed some remedies, tweaking the flavors a bit. But disaster was written on his face and it was hard to look.

It was time to send our creations out to the judges.  We hung around the kitchen nervously making conversation and reviewing those last few moments.  What was done was done and we had to try to relax.  We stood gazing down upon the city streets, wet with rain and waited.

At last we were called to the reception room.  We got a glimpse of the judges and press. In the far corner with Buck, who had enjoyed all the schmoozing, was my longtime friend John Haber who had made our wedding cake.  He was now a theater director and producer and part-time caterer in NYC. I had occasionally come to help him with some unforgettable parties. He was there to cheer me on and I was encouraged and delighted to see him.

As the microphone hissed and crackled on, all eyes faced Michael Pierce, the contest organizer, who held a single piece of paper in his hand.  We contestants stood together, more a team now than opponents, and waited again.  At last, my name was announced as the Grand Prize winner of a two week trip to Italy with first class hotels, meetings with chefs and a handsome check for shopping. I let out my long-held breath and, stopping to hug my fellow contestants, walked to center stage. I even got a medal hung around my neck from a ribbon sporting the colors of the Italian flag.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

There was the assembly for photos- this was after all a PR event. I noticed Buck, always the cheerleader back in the far corner calling our children to tell them their mom had won. I couldn’t wait to show them my medal.  John stepped forward to offer his congratulations and whispered, “I knew you would win.” 

“So did I," I thought. “So did I.”

I have often reflected on that moment and the first moment I read about the contest - long before the first recipe was written and tasted or mailed in. Was it fated?  I will never know. But I do know that I could never have won if I hadn’t believed I would and acted to set the events in motion. We each have choices it seems when we can grasp an opportunity, imagine a possibility. The choice we make at that moment, the thought that we believe to be true has everything to do with the outcome. Do we control our fate, the world around us? Not completely. Yet I know that what I choose to focus on and believe can shape my day, my every encounter. I have learned that the challenge is first knowing what I am really thinking. Only then do I have a choice. What happened those many years ago was not something I had much real consciousness about. I just knew I could do it. The lesson was just a gift and in its sweet outcome, one that I don’t often forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prize-winning Mediterranean Boboli

 

1          pound                           roasted or grilled leg of lamb (on the rare side), cut into julienned      

                                                            strips

1          16 ounce can                Italian plum tomatoes   

¼         cup                               olive oil

2          tablespoons                  olive paste

8          ounces                          artichoke hearts, Fresh, canned or frozen cut in vertical slices

¼         pound                           feta cheese, sheep or cow’s milk

¼         cup                               pinenuts

1          small                             yellow or red onion, sliced thinly

¾         teaspoon                      cinnamon

1          teaspoon                      minced garlic

1          teaspoon                      oregano, dried or fresh

4          small

or

1           large                            Boboli or other prepared pizza crust

 

Gently sauté garlic with one half of the olive oil, then simmer with tomatoes, oregano, cinnamon and one half of the olive paste until flavors blend, about 20-30 minutes. Spread the mixture on the Bobolis. Top evenly with the feta, artichoke hearts, onion, and pine nuts. 

Bake the Bobolis at 400 degrees for 8 minutes. Sprinkle julienned lamb on the pizzas. Mix together remaining olive oil and olive paste and drizzle over the top.  Bake another 7-10 minutes or until lamb is heated through. Serve hot or at room temperature.                                                                                                                 About 8-12 servings.

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