The Fabulous Food Show

My favorite food event of the year is always the Fabulous Food Show, at the I-X Center.  It shines a national spotlight on all that the Cleveland food scene has to offer, to 30,000 people over the course of a weekend.  Vendors, purveyors, artisans, chefs, foodies, students and avid eaters gather for three days celebrating all things FOOD.


This year they offered new things like a Baking Pavilion, Cocktail School and Friday night fund raising event, Savor Cleveland, to raise money for No Kid Hungry.  It was a fun evening attended by some of the celebrity chefs in town for this dynamic event.  The floor was also peppered with samples, and special offers for everything from salsa, to knives, to artisan cheese.  The neighborhood stage was a great showcase for local talent to demo techniques and recipes.  And the main stage offered presentations and Q&A from celebrity chefs like Aaron Sanchez, Daphne Oz, Michael Symon, Damaris Phillips and Melissa D’Arabian.

Once again I was honored to participate on a main stage event.  CLE Cooks for a Cause was expanded this year to include 8 teams of two, a local celeb and a local chef-going head to head in a “Chopped” style cooking competition.  Each team selected a charity to compete for.  The show itself donated $500 to each of our charities, plus donated the proceeds from reserved seating.  I was playing for the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland.

It was a rematch.  Chef Matt Mytro, of Flour, and I went back at it against Matt Fish, of Melt Bar & Grilled and Jeremiah Widmer of Q104 FM. We’d been ribbing each other for the better part of the year since the last time we cooked against each other at the Fabulous Food Show last year.  But Mytro and I wanted to take the title away from Team Melt.

We were given beef as a protein and the chefs set about rapidly raiding the back stage pantry for something they could pull off in 30 minutes, and still impress judges like Damaris Phillips, and former White House Chef, Sam Morgante.

Chef Mytro conceived, executed and plated a beautiful sirloin steak with a celeriac puree and a punchy salad on top.  He tasked me with making a perfect meatball, and braising it in some marinara.  His bold flavors and my comfort zone worked in our favor.  WE WON!  The judges were very complimentary of Mytro’s flavors and my ability to get the meatballs done in such a quick amount of time.  It felt good to win!  (especially because Matt told me his partner threatened to take his chef’s coat away if he lost a second year in a row!)


To watch the entire competition from the perspective of the stage, click here for my Facebook Live broadcast.

I also scored, with some one on one interview time with three of the biggest celebrity chefs featured in the Fabulous Show.  It’s always an honor and a blast to talk to Cleveland’s own Iron Chef, Michael Symon.  Great to catch up with him about plans for Lolita, progress at Mabel’s and his yearly opportunity to show off the CLE culinary scene.  To watch my entire one on one with Chef Michael Symon, click here for my Facebook Live broadcast.


Chef Symon brought in fellow cast member from The Chew, Daphne Oz.  I loved visiting with her about tempting toddlers with healthy food, and her new cook book, The Happy Cook.  She is stunning in person and remarkably relatable.  To view my entire interview with Daphne Oz, click here for my Facebook live broadcast.


And one of the newest members of the Food Network family, Damaris Phillips was also in town.  Phillips, of Southern at Heart, is as sweet as pecan pie and a ton of fun.  She is a great resource for those trying to please a variety of dietary needs, especially come holiday times.  She’s a southern meat-eatin’ gal who married a vegetarian!  My entire interview with Damaris Phillips can be viewed here.

The Fabulous Food Show is my happy place (one of them) it combines the energy of the Cleveland food scene, with incredible talent, learning opportunities, cutting edge products, fan favorites and delicious food.  Mark your calendar and get there next year!

Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge

What is it they say at the beginning of an Iron Chef competition? “So now America, with an open heart and an empty stomach, I say unto you in the words of my uncle: ‘Allez cuisine!'”  The phrase calls the chefs to the culinary battle.  And what a battle it was at the Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge.

I felt like a distinguished Food Network judge (along side Eric Williams and Tricia Chaves), sitting atop an elevated stage, ready to sample the hard work of up and coming sous chefs from Marriott properties all around the region.

I thought I’d be walking in to a generic corporate ballroom modestly put together to accommodate the competition.  But I grossly underestimated the production value of this event!  There was staging, and lighting and music, a live video feed of the action on large screens (thanks to Rock the House), and a real Iron Chef America Judge, Mario Rizzotti.

Eight talented and up and coming Marriott chefs advanced from hotel-level cook-offs, to compete here.  These are hourly associates and supervising chefs, at the top of their game.  They were tasked with a pretty daunting challenge: make something delicious, in 45 minutes, incorporating four mystery ingredients.  Those were lamb liver, monk fish, pickled green tomatoes and coffee.  I don’t know about you, but those don’t sound like an appealing group of ingredients to me.

When the clock started, the judges were encouraged to walk around the room, not only to chat up the chefs about what they were making, but also to take notes on how they kept their stations.  In previous competitions I’ve judged, we been tasked with ranking them from 1-5 or 1-10 in categories like taste, texture, presentation, etc.  But in this competition the scoring was far more intense, and including things like mise en place and sanitation.

And as if the pressure wasn’t intense enough, Mario was walking around the room interviewing the chefs as they were working.  But everybody seemed to handle the pressure like champs.  When the clock wound down, the chefs presented their dishes on stage and explained how they incorporated all these seemingly incompatible ingredients.

Most admitted they’d never worked with liver before and struggled with the cook on it.  But some used it wisely and flavored things like gravy, sauce or couscous with the sometimes off-putting protein.

When the scores were tallied, it was a unanimous decision to crown Courtney Nielsen, of the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, as the victor.  She cleverly made a spin on dirty rice with the liver, made coffee and used it for the liquid, pan seared the monk fish and whipped up a pickled veg salad.  To me, it was the most harmonious off all the entries.

As the winner, she’ll be sent to Marriott HQ and test kitchen in Washington D.C. where she’ll get to rub elbows with corporate chefs and VIPs.  The brass behind this event say it was created to recognize their young talent and support sous chefs and cooks who do a lot of the heavy lifting in the kitchens of their properties, and while it’s only regional for now, they expect this Farm to Fork Culinary Challenge to be a national event come next year.


What an honor it was to serve on this panel (get my first….and second-eighth tastes of lamb liver!) and help support talented, creative people like these chefs.  They rose to the challenge.  Days later, I still can’t imagine what I would have done with a mystery basket like the one they were presented with.  What would you have made?

A Tater Tot Tribute

While others are adhering to New Years resolutions to eat better and loose weight, I’ve been experimenting with my new deep fryer far more than a person should. 

This weekend I was inspired by my friend, Chef Eric Williams, who appeared on-and won–Guys Grocery Games on Food Network.  He got his start at his Mod Mex restaurant, Momocho.  But he has since made an even bigger name for himself with tasty tater tots and gourmet topped hot dogs at his two Happy Dog locations, and followed it up with Momocho’s sister location, El Carnicero, and pair of Jack Flaps (Urban Breakfast Shoppe and Luncheonette).

I took a look at what I had in the fridge on a cold Sunday afternoon…among the things that caught my eye…a couple of stadium dogs, a bunch of potatoes, couple of jalapeños and the last of a nice chunk of smoked Gouda.  I decided to figure out some sort of tasty topping for the hot dogs, and take a crack at home made cheesy tater tots using the Gouda and jalapeños…in honor of Eric’s appearance on the show. A fromage homage, if you will.

GGG potatoes in cheese cloth

I peeled and shredded 5 small potatoes, then wrung them out using a cheese cloth. To that, I added 1-2 T. seeded and finely diced jalapeño peppers, and 1/2-3/4c. shredded Gouda. To bind it all, I added a beaten egg and 1/2 c. flour. After I seasoned the mixture, I formed it into two 2 inch round logs, on parchment paper, and placed it in the freezer to set.  (I’d give it at least 30 min)

I fired up my deep fryer, set at 350* and sliced the logs into bite-sized pieces, popped them in the fryer a handful at a time and let ’em get golden brown.

While those were working I played around with my hot dog topping.  I sliced equal parts cucumber, red peppers and radishes into matchsticks and made a quick slaw dressing using olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, a smidge of honey and pickle juice. (Heck, pickle relish belongs on hot dogs…right?! Why not play on that?)

I topped my hot dogs with this bright, crunchy slaw and added some Sriracha to ketchup for a great tot dipping sauce. Sweet Thai Chili would be good too!

GGG Chef Eric

Photo Courtesy

By the time I poured a drink and plated this at-home bar food, it was time to tune in to the show.  And Eric knocked it out of the part, scoring $16,000 in the prize round and advancing to the finale of this special tournament, (airing Sunday, January 31st at 8pm) made up of All-Stars from Fieri’s other hit show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  For highlights from Chef Williams’ episode click here.
I was proud to witness the success of a guy who works hard, takes care of his staff, and elevates his community.  Best of luck, Chef!

Robert Irvine, Dinner: Impossible, Live!

Robert Irvine is equal parts Chef, Drill Sargent, Counselor and Magician.  He is the creator of the most popular show in the Food Network’s history, Restaurant: Impossible.  And he is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

This weekend’s appearance at the Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park was the last in his year-long “Robert Irvine Live Tour.”  He brings the same intensity and passion that he exudes in his televisions shows to a live audience for an interactive stage version of his original program, “Dinner: Impossible.”


I scored some one on one time with the tough, buff Britt before he took the stage.  We spoke about the big change ahead for “Restaurant: Impossible” which is the element of ambush.  Can you imagine being surprised by THIS guy?!  He shared his excitement over his new project, Fit Fuel, a guide to fitness, food and wellness.  And I fired off my “Foodie Five.”

  1. What food won’t you eat? Cinnamon or peppers
  2. What ingredient can’t you live without? Rice wine vinegar
  3. What dish still stumps you? Cornbread 
  4. What’s the biggest mistake home cooks make? Not turning off/down the burner.
  5. What would you like your last meal be? Roast chicken and mashed potatoes. 

After my interview I got to sit in on the VIP experience.  About 60 of his biggest fans got to fire off any questions they had for Irvine…like ‘Why was a local restaurant he featured/rescued on his show failing in the first place?  (his answer: The owner was “Stupidity on legs.”) …’Do you have any of your own restaurants?’ (just closed two, but he is opening several soon, including one in Vegas and one at The Pentagon, and he is working out a concept with Disney) and ‘What was the hardest change he had to make in his own life?’ (realizing that it wasn’t all about him, he said)

“I realized that success does not equal being an a@*#hole.  And I was one.”


Then he did a couple of interactive exercises.  He demonstrated why he prefers grape seed oil (no flavor to interfere with the rest of the ingredients) and showed the proper technique for searing the crab cakes he was making (with fresh lump crab meat, stone ground mustard, egg yolks, mayo, chives, parsley, Old Bay and panko bread crumbs).

Robert-Irvine-cooks with Jen

The fun really began for me when the Chef Irvine asked me to join him up front.  I helped make the accompaniments, a grilled corn salsa and tomato salad as a garnish.  He held my hand over the smoking, oiled pan to demonstrate just how hot it needs to be, and to remind us not to move the protein, so as not to disturb the natural sugars.

Robert-Irvine-cooking with Jen

I was tasked with plating the notoriously demanding chef’s food…a tall order, but he was pleased.


And…not only did I get to participate in the demo…I got to eat the crab cakes that were hand-made by this wonder-chef.  A good day at the “office” indeed.

Jen and Robert Irvine

After a brief photo/autograph session and meet and greet, it was time for the main event.  He took the stage in front of an eager crowd that he had eating out of the palm of his hand.


He’s an imposing figure and a commanding character.  Even his chef’s coat was an “extra medium.”  Irvine himself jokes that he shops at Baby Gap for his famously tight tee-shirts.  But I don’t blame him.  The man is in incredible shape.  And given both his physical fitness and his culinary chops, his new wellness and lifestyle book, Fit Fuel should do very well.  What’s even more impressive about it, is that all of the proceeds go to the Robert Irvine Foundation, his non-profit that supports the men and women of our military.  Irvine, who served 12 years with the Queen’s Royal Navy, spends about 150 days of the year traveling to military bases around the world.  A portion of the proceeds from his commercial products line, Robert Irvine Foods also goes to support our military and their families.  In addition, he supports the Gary Sinise Foundation, helping build homes for members of the Wounded Warrior Project.


During the two-hour show, the host and audience challenged him live with seemingly impossible tasks.  The first was to make a dish incorporating a ridiculous combination of ingredients selected by six audience volunteers (including Spam, Lucky Charms, lobster, and Sour Apple Pucker)  A couple of “sous chefs” from the crowd started the dish and quickly made a disgusting mess (by adding broccoli and potato chips in too).  Chef Irvine had to pick it up from there.  When he was challenged even further, and restricted to only one burner, Irvine unplugged a piping hot spotlight from stage right, and set it up on the prep table, then proceeded to sear a steak using the heat from the lamp.  Genius.  In less than 12 minutes, Irvine turned the mess into something delicious…confirmed by an audience taste-test.


The second event was a “Utensil Challenge” where Irvine’s chef’s knife, stock pock and tongs were taken away.  Oh yeah, the host added a “Physical Challenge” into the mix.  Irvine was also handcuffed around an audience member who had to act in tandem with him in order to complete the dish.


He competed against the self-proclaimed best professional chefs in the audience, working with another set of ingredients from “audience roulette,” which included zucchini squash, Oreos and steak.  A blind taste test proclaimed Irvine the winner, again.  He did his “happy dance” with a smile on his face more genuine than his usual mischievous smirk.


He concluded by letting the audience in on what he’s got in the works, a five-day a week health and wellness show.  And he is two weeks in to Season 12 of Restaurant: Impossible.  With an 87% success rate, and nearly 1 billion viewers globally, the franchise is a monster, and Irvine its master.