Smile Politely

Battle of the sexes: A grilling throwdown for charity

Last Saturday night, two culinary teams faced off in the backyard of Jon and Cathy Rector of Champaign to grill sliders and make sides for nearly 100 people, an event that donated more than $3,000 to charity — because when the Rectors elected to host one of the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation’s Chopped for Charity events, they decided to do it on a grand scale.

“Our goal was to get the word out [about Chopped for Charity] and provide exposure and awareness, along with raising money,” said Cathy Rector.

Chopped for Charity is often an intimate fundraising event where a local chef or cook and six to eight guests gather in a home to cook a multi-course dinner in the style of the television show, Chopped. On the show, the chef contestants get a basket of mystery ingredients (for example, one basket from the show included rack of wild boar, artichokes, ketchup, and sauerkraut), and they must make a course for a panel of judges using those ingredients and whatever other pantry ingredients they choose to add.

Laura Huth, President & CEO of do good Training & Consulting in Urbana, initially conceived the idea of Chopped for Charity events after watching an episode of Chopped in which four school chefs competed to raise awareness about healthy meals for children. Huth, an experienced, self-taught cook, began hosting the fundraising events in her own home, asking each dinner guest to donate to the C-U Schools Foundation and bring “mystery” ingredients for her and a sous chef to combine into a multi-course meal. The funds go to build school gardens, send school chefs for continuing education, and improve nutrition eduction in the school system.

After the Rectors attended the inaugural Chopped for Charity event, hosted by Huth and Champaign Mayor Don Gerard, they knew they wanted to host their own. And what better way to stir up a friendly rivalry than a men’s versus women’s grilling competition?

Preparing for Chopped

The Rectors began looking for a date to host the event — with so many other summer events going on, the day they finally selected happened to fall on Jon’s birthday. Cathy said Jon willingly agreed to co-host the event that day, saying that supporting the a local charity like the C-U Schools Foundation for his birthday was the “best gift he could possibly ever want.”

Between Jon and Cathy, the couple dedicate significant time on volunteer work for or with children through the Champaign West Rotary, the March of Dimes, CU 1-to-1 Mentoring, TALKS Mentoring, and other organizations. Now, they also volunteer and support the C-U Schools Foundation.

“Being a local Champaign guy, it’s nice to give back — this is a great community,” Jon Rector noted.

So Huth and Cathy Rector started organizing the event, inviting a diverse group of 12 local men and women, all with cooking experience, to be on the two teams. Women’s team competitors included Mary-Lynn Foster, Laura Frerichs, Mary Knight, Kay Machula, Elizabeth Hess, and Cynthia Faullin. Men’s team competitors included Mel Lacy, Tony Pomonis, Jim Creighton, Craig Detamore, Mike Comet, and Kevin Yonce. The cooking talents of the 12 are many, but some highlights from each team include Comet and Creighton traveling to compete in barbecue events and Mary Knight teaching cooking classes at the Mettler Center.

With a large event like this, the organizers had to modify the Chopped-style rules a little. Each team of six knew that the food, donated through Brian Davis of Sysco, would include a standard ground protein, salad greens, and potatoes. Because they planned to feed up to 100 people, they took time to pre-plan and test run some of their options in the weeks preceding the event. The contestants obtained their own ingredients to supplement the donated ingredients.

According to Faullin, during the planning phase, the women’s team settled on a slider recipe that included rosemary from Knight’s garden, since rosemary’s versatile flavor would work with any protein thrown at them by the organizers. Pomonis reported that, among other advance decisions, the men’s team chose to grill with charcoal and applewood chips to impart a little extra flavor into the meat.

Chopped for Charity: Battle of the Sexes

A couple days before the event, the contestants received their ingredients: ground beef, slider buns, sliced provolone, salad mix, and red-skinned potatoes. They began prepping early in the day, forming slider patties as early as noon on Saturday.

Although the competitive rivalry ran high, with a bit of trash talking and spying, the teams helped each other when it counted. A member of the men’s team dropped by the women’s side early in the afternoon to make sure they knew the quirks of the loaned grill, and the women’s team composed and plated food for the men’s team as a gesture.

While the competitors cooked and plated at an intense pace, guests milled about, listening to live music, getting their pictures drawn by a caricature artist, and playing bags and washer toss. The guests reflected a broad cross-section of people interested in food and schools in the community, but at the moment of voting, all were interested in who would win the faceoff.

The plates looked similar, due to the same base ingredients, but competitors changed and added to those ingredients enough to make the two plates distinctly different, especially in the area of the potato salad. The men’s team made a more traditional potato salad, while the women’s team made a spicy grilled potato salad. Tables thoroughly discussed each component and each ingredient on the plates — “what spices are in the women’s potato salad?” and “did you see the men toasted their slider bun?” and “which salad do you like better?” The women also decided to throw in a sweet brownie square with a drizzle of chocolate syrup to sway voting their way, a point of contention at some tables: “Is that fair?”

Guests voted by dropping a colored toothpick, red or blue, from one slider or the other in a vase, while cheesecake desserts made by volunteer Ann Welch were distributed and eaten. Before the tally was announced, Huth reminded the guests and competitors of the purpose of the event: “No matter who wins tonight, boys’ or girls’ [team], who really wins are the kids.”

When Mayor Gerard, the emcee of the event, started to announce the winning team, and realized there was no official prize for the event, he offered that the winning team pick their prize, like dinner at his house. (Someone in the audience suggested a city council seat, but unlike some other Illinois politicians, he deferred to the Champaign voters on that count.)

The women’s team won the competition 46–37 votes, much to the men’s team’s chagrin, but the teams shook hands at Mayor Gerard’s behest, “like after a hockey game.”

Rivalries aside, the event produced camaraderie and new friends. The men’s team met at Pomonis’s house in advance for planning, and he said that it was “a lot of fun getting to know these guys and getting together with them,” and some competitors announced their newfound respect for Lacy as a “grilling god.”

Several hours later, people continued to discuss which dishes were better, but below is a list of ingredients and instructions from the winning team, no proportions included. 

Spicy Grilled Potato Salad (Women’s Team)

red skinned potatoes
baby asparagus
white onion
red and green peppers
three types of mushrooms: baby, white button, and oyster
fresh ground salt and pepper
garlic salt
McCormick Grill Mates Spicy Montreal Steak Seasoning

Chop vegetables into bite-size pieces, toss in olive oil and spice to taste, and wrap in foil packets. Grill until potatoes are cooked through.

Hosting your own Chopped for Charity

Anyone can host a Chopped for Charity event to raise money for the C-U Schools Foundation. The smaller events run more like a fundraising dinner party, where the hosts open their home for the event and can also act as the Chopped chef or sous chef, if so inclined. Each guest donates $50 and brings some “mystery basket ingredients” for different courses. Some upcoming Chopped for Charity events include a cheesecake challenge and other individual dinner events.

If you don’t have a yard that will fit 100 people, but want to get involved or host a smaller Chopped for Charity event yourself, contact Laura Huth by email or at (217) 778-1687, who can assist with planning or cooking.

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