By: Terry Simpson
An air of excitement and the sounds of laughter spill out of the Signature HealthCARE dining room as resident Virginia Wilson dons a crisp white paper chef hat, straightens her apron proclaiming, “Team Hot Flashes” and rushes down the hall. She cannot be late as she is determined to win the cooking contest being held in the cafeteria.
As she enters the room and finds her teammate Admissions Marketing Director Ashley Hume, she looks around and smiles in anticipation, confident in her partner and their chances on winning the competition based on the popular TV show, Food Network’s “Chopped.”
This competition was held in the local Signature HealthCARE, as well as 114 other locations on Wednesday, March 27, with the first-place winners of each contest Advancing to the finals in Elizabethtown.
The contest is for three to four teams, consisting of one resident and one stakeholder, who are asked to create a dessert using three secret ingredients. The dishes will be presented to three judges basing their decisions on presentation, use of ingredients and taste.
“Two minutes,” shouts Quality of Life Director Jamie Turner as she glances around the room.
Contestants are doing last-minute preparations, making sure they have all of their ingredients and tools. A small white timer sits on a table with two trophies, consisting of a spoon, knife and fork design, chef hats and several magazines titled Chop. “One minute!”
The timer slowly ticks down the seconds until start time and as it strikes zero, Tuner yells “You have one hour. GO!”
At that mark everyone scrambles, running across the room to use a mixer or grab a special ingredient. Someone yells, “Can I borrow some vanilla?” and another says, “does that say ¾ cup?”
Some teams chose quick simple recipes, while others took a chance on much more complicated desserts.
Sugar and Spice team members Leigha Page and resident Dennis Gentry laugh as Page darts back and forth to their table in a rush as they have chosen a recipe requiring 53 minutes.
Cocoa bags, measuring cups and powdered sugar litters their table as they put all their efforts into preparation.
Tuner laughs, “You can tell they are in a hurry, would you look at that,” as she points to a mixer station where powdered cocoa covers the area and the arm of the mixer drips a gooey liquid onto the countertop.
“I was worried about Sugar and Spice, that recipe takes a while, but I think they can pull it off.”
She shares the required ingredients for the contest; cocoa, creme cheese and graham crackers, noting that participants can add other ingredients if they wish.
She explains that the contest originally called for three to four teams, saying that is what the other rehabilitation centers did, but smiling with pride saying, “We had ten teams that wanted to do this. This is a really good thing. I love seeing the elders and staff having so much fun.”
She continued explaining that the teams had been very nervous as they had only received their list of ingredients a week prior and did not know how much time they would be given at the next stage of the competition in Elizabethtown.
The teams were Spice Girls, Erica Milam and Margie Gentry; Sugar and Spice, Dennis Gentry and Leigha Page; Sweet and Sassy, Iva Mae Burrurs and Heidi Stinson; Yum Yum Girls, Vanda McCreary and Rita Crabtree; Hot Flashes, Virginia Wilson and Ashley Hume; Southern Charm, Nella Stewart and Jane Rouse; Pink Ladies Connie Pruitt and Nichole Proffitt; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dortha Butler and Josh Frazier; Signature Chefs, Letha Bartley and Dara Ford and Crunch -N- Munch, Joan Spear and Kayla Trivett.
The cleverly-named teams decided on their own recipes, with some making them up and others googling. Most used specific measured amounts while others, such as Yum Yum Girls team member Vanda McCreary, made it up as she went along.
When asked if she was enjoying the competition she replied, “Of course!” as teammate Rita Crabtree noted that Vanda has made fudge for the residents in the past.
McCreary also noted that she was glad that certain amounts were not required as she made a double batch for residents to have later.
She reminisced on her love of cooking as Crabtree said, “I haven’t done anything, it is all her,” and Vonda laughed, “Well, you have done all the running.”
As some residents were not as able as they used to be to do that running, that job was left up to the stakeholders as residents were hard at work crushing graham crackers and pitting strawberries. Southern Charm team member and resident Nella Stewart was doing just that as someone asked her what she was up to. She declared, “Waiting for them to tell us we won,” as she crushed a baggie full of graham crackers with the end of a whisk.
Team Hot Flash was also busy with their graham crackers when asked what they were making Hume laughed, “A mess,” as she and resident Virginia Wilson kneaded powdered sugar into their homemade cream cheese icing giving up and using their gloved hands as the mixer clumped up on them, “This is faster and works better anyway,” they laughed.
Preparation rounds finished up as contestants rushed their deserts off to cook or be chilled, using the wait time for cleaning and setting up their displays. Every few minutes someone would ask for a time check as they waited nervously to add their finishing touches.
Contestants chatted with each other discussing things, such as the preferred quick prep time on some of their recipes; the secret ingredient, cayenne pepper, in the Spice Girls recipe; Easter decorations added to Connie’s Delight, a dish named for Connie Pruitt of team Pink Ladies; and the ease of Sweet and Sassy’s recipe which judge Jerri Rowland commented was perfect for putting in a cooler or sending the kids out the door with it.
The final timer sounded, and contestants were asked to stop what they were doing. The judges were brought in and it was finally the moment they had all been waiting for.
Judges for the event were Monroe County Extension Agent Jamille Hawkins, Area Technology Center Principal Jerri Rowland and Signature HealthCARE MDS coordinator Kellie Hammer.
Turner noted that they had a hard job and they probably would not be sleeping that night after sampling the rich desserts.
At this time each team brought a sample of their entries to the table for judging.
The residents read the recipe and shared a little about who they were and why they wanted to compete.
The judges commented and asked questions on the looks and taste of the entries and the contestants were asked to step outside while they deliberated. This continued one at a time until their table was overflowing with sweets.
The judges then left the room to vote on their final decision. They were gone for several minutes as it was a very hard choice, they said.
Anticipation mounted between contestants as the judges finally stepped back into the cafeteria.
One first place winner was chosen, and that honor went to Virginia Wilson and Ashley Hume of team “Hot flashes” for their dessert titled “Man Bars,” which Hume jokingly named because “They are so simple even a man can make them.”
The crowd cheered as the ladies came forward to accept their trophies presented by the judges.
Leigha Page and Dennis Gentry were chosen as alternates in case Hot Flashes were not able to attend.
But, they are pretty sure they’ll compete — after all, as Wilson knew from the beginning when she was donning her chef hat and rushing to the event, she was going to win, and she is determined to do so again in Elizabethtown.
Staff and residents alike agreed that if she and Hume perform as they did at the local contest, there is no doubt they will be bringing home another trophy from Elizabethtown.
If you would like to view the Chopped contest in person, go to the Monroe County Facebook page and look for the live videos.