BROOKSVILLE — Every package of mystery ingredients hid chicken. One also contained beef steak, another fresh salmon, and a third a plump pork chop.
Three cooking teams representing the health care/rehabilitation residences of Evergreen Woods and Spring Hill Health and Rehabilitation, both of Spring Hill, and Heron Pointe of Brooksville wielded pans and spatulas Wednesday in a local rendition of the Food Network's Chopped.
Six teams originally had been invited to the contest, held at the Grande in Brooksville.
Heron Pointe admissions director Wendy Hopkins, sous chef to dietary manager Debra Stokes, whooped it up when she discovered the steak. Setting up their cooking station earlier and wondering what protein they would be presented, Hopkins had noted, "I like to do chicken best." She got her wish there.
Steve Sklavounos, dietary cook at Evergreen Woods, had hoped to find fish in his team's packet. His father, he explained, had been a fisherman in Greece.
But the fresh salmon went to the Brooksville Healthcare team of dietary manager Frankie Plummer and sous chef Mark DelPilar.
Sklavounos and his partner, executive director Ron Swonger, dealt with the pork chop, sizzling up a pan-fried, breaded cut with onions, mushrooms and red and green peppers, deglazed with white wine and Sklavounos's "secret spices."
The cooks could choose among an array of spices, herbs, fresh and aromatic vegetables, cooked rice or pasta, tortillas, pre-baked potatoes, dairy products, olive oil and wine. Within one hour, they had to prepare an appetizer and an entree plate — one of each for presentation and one for shared tasting by six celebrity judges.
After five minutes allowed for the chefs to put their heads together and assemble their ingredients, the Grande's outreach specialist, Kim Foster, gave the order to start their burners.
Patrick Maloney, CEO of Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals, was the first judge to jump from the officials' table to eye the competitors' skills in chopping, prepping equipment and composing ingredients.
The audience of cheerleaders brought by each team from their home sites kept their voices to a whisper while several clicked away with cameras.
They may have caught DelPilar's deft use of a chopping knife, Stokes worrying over a gas burner that curiously shut off, Swonger seeking advice on slicing matched cuts of green pepper; Sklavounos meticulously turning on his griddle each small chop of chicken for a quesadilla, or Plummer raising her voice calling for fresh potatoes.
Foster called out a 10-minute warning, then corrected it to 12 minutes. Competitors hunkered down and hustled. The Grande's executive chef, Obed Velazquez, ducked in several minutes later and announced 18 minutes remaining. The chefs acknowledged privately that the confusion over time set them off pace. But they persevered.
Judges, in the end, scratched over tally sheets prepared by Velazquez, assigning scores for a dish's visual presentation, aroma, evenness of cooking and taste. They adjourned for discussion, with judge and sheriff's Capt. Jim Powers tailing the group after one last bite.
Upon return, Velazquez said: "It was very close. The judges had a very hard time."
On announcement of winner, the team from Brooksville Healthcare Center, Plummer pummeled her assistant, Depillar, on his shoulders. Both wore big grins.
"Fresh did it," Plummer declared. "Fresh potatoes, fresh salsa, everything fresh."
Plummer, 42, has been cooking professionally for 25 years. DelPilar, 23, has been cooking for three years at the center, which serves 160 meals, three times daily.
The duo received a trophy and a check for $100 from the Grande, which sponsored the event.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]