DOLE Cali Cook-Off, LA Wknd Wrap-Up.

I'm back!
This weekend I competed in the DOLE California Cook-Off after beating out over 4,000 entries to become a top five finalist! There was even a top 30 phase where every recipe was test-kitchened. How cool is that?! I have so much to share with you from my weekend of fun in the sun (and fun in the kitchen). Keep reading to hear all about my DOLE Cook Off experience: the good, the bad, the delicious. Plus my feedback on the Cook-Off event... *See my complete photo slideshow of event here*
Two Part Wrap-Up. I have split my LA Weekend Wrap-Up into two parts. First up in part one, this post which reviews the DOLE Cook Off event. In tomorrow's post, part two, I'll show you the personal side of my LA weekend: the eats, the sites and my adventures... ...and all the awesome people I met... Bloggers (front row) and Finalists (back row):

Coming Home.
At 5am this morning I stumbled off my LAX -> JFK Virgin America red eye flight, with my groggy husband in tow. As we rolled our luggage out of the JFK airport baggage terminal and into the sticky, swampy NYC air - one view of the golden pink sunrise skyline and I knew I was home. I plopped myself into a musty cab as my husband tossed our bags into the trunk with a loud thump. I could barely lift my carry-on bag - my limbs were like wet noodles. My eyelids as heavy as bags of rice. "Wow, I'm tired." I mumbled to my half-awake husband. He nodded back to me as our cabbie sped off towards a maze of highways and bridges, all leading back to the concrete jungle ahead. As visions of aqua-blue Malibu waves danced in my head.
Pics from the Event: Me at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Blvd.

I'm Ready to Cook People!...lets go.

Meeting and Chatting with Chef Ben Ford. Nice guy all around (and if he looks familiar - yes, he's actor Harrison Ford's son):

My sous Chef Justin from and Chef Ben Ford, and me:

Lots of DOLE products/signage everywhere, of course:


Cameras Everywhere and Interviews Galore:

The finished dishes:

My finished dish for presentation:

My dish on a large platter for the group feast:

...see why I'm tired.
But this tired is a good one. This feeling of exhaustion is a result of a long, intense weekend of fun, food, cooking, socializing, laughing, learning and just soaking it all in. To Analyze - or not? I've been milling over how to write this contest wrap-up. Sweet and simple or analytical. Well after deleting a few drafts of 'sweet and simple' I decided to do what I do best: analyze. The good news: I had a blast competing! I was happy with my performance and my dish. Many of the event attendees and executives said they were anxious to experiment with tofu at home after seeing and tasting my dish. Yay! The more people experimenting with eating less meat and more plant proteins the better. My dish:

Also awesome: I met a great bunch of fantastic new friends from all over the country - many of whom are just as obsessed with food, recipes, food photography, dining, eating and tweeting as I am. Not so shocking, I got along quite well with the bloggers at the event: Alice Currah, Savory Sweet Life Cathy Danh, Gastronomy Blog Justin Lee, Justin Eats Erin Forney, Food Tramp Diaries Gabriela Lopez, Gabriela’s Kitchen New friends! Justin Eats (my blogger sous Chef) and Gabriela Lopez (a fellow NYCer):

*See more event pics here*
The bad news: I didn't win the top prize. After so much anticipation - not winning is always hard. What a thrill it would have been to see my vegan recipe grace the cans of DOLE products for all of mainstream America to experiment with at home.

So who did win: Janice Elder. A very sweet lady whom I adored. Janice's Orange and Avocado Crowned Black Thai Grilled Chicken Thighs won the $1000 prize and chance to be on DOLE cans. However, the point difference from the top prize point.

More Good: Chef Ben Ford - the sole judge - called my dish 'innovative' and praised its 'one bowl meal' aesthetic. Chef Ford is a class-act Chef with a warm kitchen presence. He told me he is inspired by farm-to-table style dining. Love that. Interacting with him left a satisfying glow on my face that made the event a truly special experience.

The only thing...
that I was frustrated by was how the winning DOLE dish didn't really use a DOLE product in the main part of the recipe (aka, the chicken and grilling glaze/sauce was DOLE product free). The only way the DOLE product was used was as a raw topping at the end plating stage of the recipe. There are so many creative ways to use DOLE products - so I was a bit confused that the winning recipe only used the oranges as a topping. I was very proud that I used the entire can juice/fruit throughout my entire recipe to flavor the rice and accent the tofu. Then the leftover raw oranges were used as garnish. Nothing wasted. The only reason I'm pointing this out is because it did frustrate me a bit - but then again, it is hard to truly know what the judge is looking for in the winner. So congrats to Janice nonetheless! Lastly, I want to give my feedback of the event - things to consider adjusting for next year.

Here is my feedback:
1. Perhaps have more than one judge - at least two. Even Throwdown with Bobby Flay has two judges. Most cooking contests have three or more. 2. Let the event attendees vote on the winner and factor their vote into the final tally. 3. Don't forget to include the hardworking bloggers in the end certificate of participation ceremony. 4. Include a brief critique alongside the praise. Constructive criticism helps us improve our cooking/recipes skills for future recipes. 5. Include a 'nutrition' factor and/or 'innovation' factor in the scoring. DOLE puts such a proud emphasis on nutrition it seems only fitting that nutrition play a part in the judging.

My Experience Overall: Gratitude. I was thrilled and giddy to participate in this inaugural Cook-Off event. When I first got the phone call I jumped up and down in a fit of excitement. And the event lived up to my anticipation. Each and every person I met was fun, interesting, passionate and lively about food, recipes and DOLE.

The Rogers PR staff and the DOLE folks were in a word: awesome. Helpful, friendly, fun and organized. The bloggers at the event and my fellow finalists were all stellar. And I want to congratulate Janice on her win - she is such a sweet lady and I'm happy for her. She lit up like a disco ball when Ben announced her name. So cute.

Last Words:
One thing I know for sure is that food is personal. And everyone has a different opinion about what is "the best". Watch one episode of Top Chef or Iron Chef and you will see the top notch judges argue like playground schoolchildren. Everyone is a critic - including me - but I have 100% respect for each of the contestants. We all cooked our butts off on Saturday and we all deserve a toast of congrats! And lastly, thank you to my wonderful husband who was with me all day long..

My Contest Post all about the DOLE Cook-Off The DOLE Cook-Off official website *you can see all the finalist recipes here* *See my complete photo slideshow of event here* DOLE Wrap-up here Kathy's Interview with Part Two Here! ...amazing sites and eats I experienced during

my trip!