10 Apr PART 3, From Zeina’s Kitchen to Television
I wasn’t walking in someone else’s life; this was all mine! It was me, taking part in a television recording! It felt almost unreal and perfect, all at the same time. I remember thinking, keep breathing, stay attentive, focus.
That’s when our final instructions were given. We were taken on a detailed tour of the kitchen area to find out, where all the spices were stored, how the refrigerator was divided in specific sections, and where the “mystery ingredient” was kept, for us to grab if we made it to the second round.
It really does take a village! All the backstage staff were there helping us out, reassuring us. Almost like if we were their children. They made sure we always looked camera ready. Hair and facial touch ups were done the entire seven hours we were in the studio.
Each participant was assigned a cooking station. Yes, you guessed it: being the shorter, I was placed right in front. I heard sliding drawers, slamming cupboards and clicking cutlery as we all became familiar with the tools available to us. This would be our working space for at least the first assignment. That’s also when I realized that I would only see the person cooking next to me, and none of the people behind me.
Isabelle Racicot, the host, arrived looking lovely, so elegant and confident. She was beautiful. A few minutes later, both judges arrived and took their designated seats behind what looked like a bar. Sitting about 30 feet to our left, we couldn’t see them very well with all the cameras in the way, but we could hear them if they spoke to us.
Lights? Check. Sound? Check. Isabelle received final instructions in her ear piece from the booth above. We stood motionless, waiting for her cue.
We don’t have a lot of time to prepare our first dish: gazpacho. Fifteen minutes appeared on the giant flat screen in front of us. We could never ask where did the time go? It was right there, like a giant elephant, staring at us.
I big breath and a quick prayer before I start cooking: Please God let me do well in this first round, and later in all rounds. Help me to keep my nerves under control and deliver a good dish. I do not want to be the first to go home, I want to make my family and friends proud!
Every required ingredient for our first dish was placed on a tray in front of us. Isabelle says “SOYEZ BON! SOYEZ BREF! SOYEZ CHEF! (Be good, be quick, be chef) In other words, ready, set, go! The competition begins and the widescreen clock starts to count down.
I was super happy to finally get started. The feeling of the first few seconds compared to when you are tongue-tied and can’t put a full sentence together. In this case though, it was my fingers that felt awkward and shaky. Thank goodness this only lasted a few seconds. It was not easy having a camera less than two feet away from my face the entire time, plus a few more hovering around the room.
Working at what felt like the speed of light, I gained confidence by the minute. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t challenging. I had to pretend all was working fine when in reality, I had some challenges with the equipment. There was no grating attachment on the food processor. Plus, the blade wasn’t sharp enough, I had to grate the carrots and cucumbers by hand and then chop the mint, parsley and onion, all of which took much longer than I had practiced at home.
When I started plating my dish with less then a minute on the giant timer, I realized that I left out one ingredient completely! There was no time anything but to taste the cold soup as it was. Yummy! It was good. Thank you, Jesus!! Now Zeina, clean up the martini glass you are serving the gazpacho in and deliver it to the judges without spilling it before the time runs out.
All six participants stood side by side under the hot spot lights and behind the line, relieved that the first task was over and scared of what the judges would say. The first words form Kimberly’s mouth were, “I am the queen of gazpacho”. In case we weren’t intimidated enough, this made sure we were. Mine was the fifth of the six soups to be dissected. The comments given to the others before me were both good and not so good. Kimberly was the first to take a spoon full of mine. I had asked her to close her eyes and imagine wherever she wanted to be… and that’s how she tasted my gazpacho. The first words out of her mouth were, “it’s delicious”. Mathieu, the other judge, was less impressed but still enjoyed the fresh flavors of cucumber, mint and tomato. I felt confident that I had made it to the next round. Still, what a relief it was when someone else’s name was called out as the person eliminated.
Round 2. I am ready! Kofta. This Mediterranean dish is traditionally made of minced meat- beef or lamb – as a kebab with cinnamon, all spice and other flavors. I chose to make beef kofta on soft pita bread with hummus topped with thinly sliced red onion, parsley and tomato salad in a lemon, olive oil and sumac dressing. Wait! I almost forgot the mystery ingredient! With less than a minute to go, I realize that I didn’t use the fresh dates. I ran to the fridge, I grabbed a hand full, ran back and ripped them from their stone and chopped them in small pieces as fast as I could and put them on top of my salad. Ouff! That was too close!
The challenge of competitive cooking is to get control of your nerves and remember everything, while rolling with the punches and always being aware of the clock. I had to quickly adjust to the different equipment and tools. I remained positive telling myself it would all work out for the best.
Making kofta is for me like cooking spaghetti is for an Italian. Another obstacle, however: no grill to cook the meat. I was stressed not knowing whether the meat would cook in time on the stove-top cast iron pan. The texture isn’t as crispy as when cooked on a grill either.
Something as simple as squeezing the juice out of a lemon became a challenge. I didn’t like the kind of lemon press we were given. I wasn’t strong enough to press it fully. I had to borrow lemons from everyone’s station because I wasn’t getting enough juice out of each one. I could not believe this problem! At home I can make this food with my eyes closed and yet here, now, with the clock ticking, I might not be able to finish on time or my flavors might be off because of the different kitchen equipment. I am Lebanese, I got this…
TO BE CONTINUED…