The secret ingredient was lemon.
Everything else was fair game for 33 professional and amateur chefs who competed in Sunday's second annual Iron Chef America: Tampa Style, an event to raise funds for a new neo-natal unit at All Children's Hospital.
Guests who paid $100 per ticket would sample 26 recipes and vote for them based on the best overall taste, best use of the secret ingredient, best presentation and most creative.
Unlike the Japanese television show which puts chefs on the spot, these had a couple of months to experiment. Lisa Rogers needed all the time she could get.
"Trial and error," the amateur chef called the process. She and a team of women made up of a scientist, lawyer and Web designer narrowed their recipes down to two bite-sized dishes: a lemon-chocolate mole and lemon bonbons.
Their team, Global Market Fusion, worked for 20 hours two days in a row, stayed up until 1 a.m. Sunday, and then woke up five hours later to get their lemony creations ready.
"How could you not do this for the kids?" Rogers asked.
Just before noon, the 450 guests began to trickle in. Among them was a 5-year-old girl in a white sundress, who jumped up and down while holding onto her mom's hand. Sesly Hernandez-Evers has a lot to celebrate.
The worst is over.
Sesly was 2 in 2005 when she and her baby sister Mistica were taken out of a home full of neglect and domestic violence. Brad and Katerina Evers already had two biological sons, ages 3 and 5, but they were seeking to adopt.
On July 4, 2005, they all became a family.
At first, Sesly was terrified of grown-ups. She hid in her room, and stayed quiet. When her dad tried to tickle her, she stood stiff, and never laughed.
"She was scared to death," Brad Evers said.
Then, something really scary happened.
Katerina Evers, a nurse, noticed Sesly limping while she walked. In January 2006, doctors at All Children's Hospital diagnosed her with leukemia.
"Everything shattered," Katerina Evers remembers. Sesly underwent two and a half years of chemotherapy, extended hospital visits, personality changes and pain.
Then, Sesly's cancer went into remission. These days, she has so much energy and personality, she says she wants to be a Buccaneers cheerleader when she grows up.
Just before her final treatment in March, someone asked her to draw a painting to auction off at Sunday's Iron Chef fundraiser. In the kitchen of their Westchase home, Sesly asked her mother to help her sketch butterflies and bubbles. She filled them in with bright pastel paint.
The 5-year-old, who was adopted on Independence Day, told her mother the painting was about freedom.
Sesly wanted to be free from medicine and cancer, like the butterflies and bubbles in the sky.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.