Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Maladroit trio of chefs could redefine 'finger food'

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Take three middle-aged guys, dress them up in aprons and chef's hats, stick razor-sharp knives in their hands, then order them to whip up three gourmet dishes from secret ingredients while standing on a stage under hot lights with hundreds of wine-swilling audience members looking on in horror.

That's pretty much the recipe for disaster.

It's also the thrilling scenario that will play out Thursday night at the Caboto Centre on Wilkes Avenue when I, my buddy Bob, who happens to be the publisher of this newspaper, and our pal Joe Grande, the gregarious owner of Mona Lisa Ristorante on Corydon Avenue, take part in a charity cook-off.

My two pals and I are on one of four three-cook teams putting their culinary skills on the line in the first-ever Golden Apron Gala, an Iron Chef-style fundraiser in support of Wolseley Family Place, a core-area resource centre that has been providing programs and services to low-income families for 16 years.

(To check on last-minute tickets, email or call 204-774-1837. Tickets are $100 per person.)

I do not know what our food-fight rivals call themselves, but our team's official name is The Squid Ink-stained Wretches. I selected this impressive moniker because squid ink is used to make gourmet pasta, whereas wretches are a thing used to make newspapers.

For the Wretches to emerge victorious, we will most likely have to bribe the judges, a panel of three local chefs and three randomly selected audience members. The truth is, it will be a huge moral victory if Bob, Joe and I are able to walk off the stage with the same number of fingers we had when we walked on.

But having a cool-sounding team name is not enough to carry even the most talented band of chefs to victory in a heated battle such as this. You also need a secret culinary strategy. I pointed that out to Bob -- who, like me, has the natural cooking ability of a cinder block -- and here's what he said: "I would use the same strategy as I do in the gut-busting workouts that are part of my new obsession with CrossFit training: Just hang on. Push through the pain. Don't throw up. It'll be over soon."

As you can imagine, our hopes of being awarded the golden aprons hinge entirely on our restaurateur pal Joe showing up, which is never a sure thing. The truth is, our team in Mona Lisa's summer bocce league is called the No-Show Joes, because of Joe's God-given ability to forget when games are scheduled.

Over a tiny cup of espresso this week, I asked Joe how he planned to lead us to the culinary version of the promised land. "I think we'll apply the KISS system," he explained. "We're going to be kissing everyone through the whole thing. Every time we do something, we kiss.

"Ha ha ha. No, it's Keep It Simple, Stupid. Italian cooking is simple, so we're going to stick to Italian because that's what I know best. As long as we don't hit each other in the head with a pan, we'll be OK."

The way the charity cook-off works is, starting at 7:15 p.m., the four teams get 90 minutes to whip up an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert -- incorporating a different secret ingredient into each of the three dishes.

"Then right before you start cooking, each team will draw for a mystery ingredient you have to incorporate into at least one of the dishes," explained event organizer Pamela Mason.

Along with raising desperately needed cash for the non-profit's food-related programming, Mason said the goal is for the inaugural cook-off to help the centre connect with the community in a light-hearted manner.

"It gets people associating Wolseley Family Place with good things," she told me. "The work at the centre can be pretty intense sometimes. Lots of families live with poverty and violence and substance abuse -- some pretty difficult things to face."

Which is good to know, but I began sweating profusely when she pointed out my team will be facing some hardcore opponents. "Most of your competitors have some serious skill," she warned me, "but you guys have Joe. Joe's a good cook, right?"

Yes, Pamela, our buddy Joe is an excellent cook. He's also a fierce culinary competitor.

"Maybe we should try to intimidate the other cooks," is what Joe suggested earlier this week, flashing his trademark impish grin. "We could put some hot peppers in their dessert or turn off the electricity or something like that."

Of course, he was just kidding when he said that. At least I think he was.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2014 A2


Updated on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at 9:17 AM CDT: Corrects grammatical errors

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