Matt Kosterman

The Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry crowned a duo of champions in their first annual Healthy Chef Challenge at the Nineteenth Century Club on April, 7th.

“The energy in the room was incredible;” say OPRF Food Pantry Executive Director, Michele Zurakowski, “everyone loved the idea of the Healthy Chef Challenge!”

The first annual event pulled in a diverse crowd of nearly 300 supporters at the Nineteenth Century Club last Saturday night. Dan Wneck, a biology and chemistry teacher at Fenwick High School  won the amateur round of competition before the professionals took the stage.

Contestants in the professional division each created a dish celebrating the flavor of the Food Pantry with four pre-selected ingredients including black beans, canned plums, ground turkey, and multigrain bread; they also had to contend with secret ingredient revealed just before the competition began. 

“They were horrified,” says Zurakowski of the can of spaghetti rings in tomato sauce used as a the secret ingredient to keep the professional chef’s on their toes.

Gabriel Padilla of Rustico, Kevin Rodriguez of Maya Del Sol, and Angie Montroy of Angie’s Pantry had to contend with the Pantry’s saucy-spaghetti surprise. Montroy, a healthy-food focused chef, came into the Healthy Chef Challenge feeling nervous, but she had a game plan she hoped would lead her to a victory.

“My competitors in the professional division were all so talented and have such successful restaurants,” said Montroy, ” so I knew this competition would be tough.” 

Montroy planned to differentiate herself by preparing a stacked open-face sandwich with her pantry ingredients. She looked for inspiration in the fresh vegetables available to the cooks on site; she selected sweet potatoes and collard greens and began cooking.

First she whipped up a mash of black beans and plums to serve a top of grilled crostini. She enhanced the ground turkey with a few more plums and a puree of those dreaded spaghetti rings (she had to put them somewhere). She cooked the turkey in garlic infused oil to a lovely golden brown and placed the juicy patties on top of the beans.  Montroy then garnished the sandwich with blanched collard greens and an over easy egg.  A side of shredded sweet potatoes rounded out her colorful plate.

“I really hoped the egg would push it over the top,” says Montroy of her creation. Montroy, who is known for making healthy twists on classic comfort foods, took home top honors at the Healthy Chef Challenge. 

While she was thrilled to win, Montroy appreciated sharing the evening with her fellow chefs, enjoyed  the sense of fun wrapped up in the evening, and especially loved the broad show of support for the Food Pantry.

The Healthy Chef Challenge raised enough money to cover two months of nutrition education programming at the pantry that will provide nearly 3,000 individuals with education and skills to select and prepare nutritious foods on severely limited budgets.  

“I walked away from the event feeling like if everyone just did a little bit more we might not have anyone hungry in our community;” said Montroy of her experience at the Healthy Chef Challenge, “I just want to take care of everybody!”

Join the discussion on social media!