“If we don’t find the soy sauce, we’re doomed!” Urban Sophisticate Sister said dramatically. Dandelion Niece, her sous chef, scanned the grocery shelves.
Red-haired Niece walked by, timer in hand. “Seventeen minutes left.”
“I’ll go ask at the register,” said Dandelion Niece breathlessly.
The little north-country grocery store near my parents’ camp is usually a relaxed place where summer tourists stroll by in flipflops to stock up on hamburger buns and suntan lotion. But last week, for thirty minutes – EXACTLY thirty minutes – it became a set for the Islands Chef contest, a family event organized by Red-Haired Niece. The contest was, apparently, modeled after a television show that most of us have never seen. But we all grasped the concept right away: it was a cooking contest in which strict time limits force contestants to prepare food at a stressful pace that is highly entertaining to anyone not in the contest.
As the official photographer, it was my job to take photos. In the tiny store, it wasn’t hard to find the Islands Chef competitors. They were the frantic, obsessed shoppers racing up and down the aisles, muttering to each other as they tossed items into their carts. Other customers – that is the people in the store not part of my crazy family -- looked at my camera curiously; one man began waving and trying to get into the pictures.
In the produce section, Tie-dye Brother-in-law, who had been caught earlier in the week bribing judges with bars of dark chocolate, lamented the lack of fresh basil. Suburban Nephew was choosing peppers.
“Twelve minutes left,” warned Red-haired Niece. She strode off to find the other teams. “I wish they’d let me use the PA system.”
The little grocery store has never seen such excitement. Workers and customers alike kept asking us questions. By the time the Islands Chef competitors came through the checkout lines, the cashiers were shaking hands and saying, “Good luck!”
“How many of you are there?” asked the young woman ringing up purchases as Urban Sophisticate and Dandelion Niece frantically bagged their groceries.
“Four teams of two,” said Urban Sophisticate. “Do we have enough chicken? Dandelion Niece -- run and grab another package.”
Back at camp, the teams had exactly one hour to prepare their food. In addition to eight cooks, we had a mob of judges – the rest of the family – who milled about watching the preparations and getting in the way. The chefs had to prepare two dishes, one of which had to be vegetarian. And they had to incorporate the “secret ingredient” that had been dramatically unveiled fifteen minutes before the shopping trip: tomatoes.
What the chefs didn’t have was a full kitchen. In fact, they had no kitchen at all. They had to share the grill and couple of burners set up near the firepit under the oak trees. Two more electric burners were available inside my parents’ cabin. Furious negotiations over burners resulted in several chefs using the same hot water for different kinds of pasta.
In a strategic move, my brother and Blonde Sister-in-law opened the trunk of their car to reveal a card table, camp stove, knives, cutting board, and pots. They set up their own cooking station over near their tent, a good fifty feet away from the firepit where the other contestants were fighting over space.
My mother, who normally does a whole lot of the cooking at camp and who was supposed to be relaxing and not doing any work, spent the hour rushing about to help as frantic requests came from the chefs: “Do you have a can opener? A sharp knife?”
“We couldn’t let Grandma enter the contest because everyone would vote for her,” one of the judges observed. “It wouldn’t be a contest.”
“Yeah,” agreed Boy in Black. “She would dominate.”
The hour went by in a blur for the harried chefs and sous chefs. Cooking for 26 people means a whole lot of chopping. Knives flashed through onions, peppers, and of course, tomatoes. Despite stern warnings from Red-haired Niece, there was a high degree of cooperation amongst the chefs. Blond Brother-in-law seemed to be watching over everyone’s pots – and he grilled the chicken for Urban Sophisticate’s curry chicken.
I could see that the teams were making efforts to cater to individual judges. The Italian sausage that Tie-dye Brother-in-law had bought to add to his pasta dish was an obvious effort to get my father’s vote. Blond Brother-in-law secured my mother’s vote as soon as he began unpacking the mussels and shrimp. My brother and his wife went for the teenage vote – a huge vat of chicken chili that won over my sons. Urban Sophisticate catered to the vegetarian voting block with a curry dish that included spinach, black-eyed peas, and tomatoes.
Schoolteacher Niece gave a cry of horror halfway through the hour when she discovered that the bottle of wine she’d bought to serve with her meal was empty. It had been drunk by several of the judges, who had mistaken it for a bribe.
The chefs and sous chefs rushed to get their dishes on the picnic table as the clock wound down. The chefs presented each dish, making up names on the spot to pretend that their dishes were entirely original. “And our chicken chili is accompanied by Whiskey Island Mango Salad,” my brother explained, borrowing the name from an island we’ve all swum at since we were kids. The mango salad, spooned into scooped-out tomatoes, was sure to get everyone’s vote for best presentation.
Then, without even clearing the cutting boards away, we all sat down a frenzy of eating. Drama Niece’s two teenage friends arrived just as the feast began. They looked startled at first at all the elaborate dishes but soon joined right in and even produced an old cutting board to be used as first prize.
Red-haired Niece, who had printed ballots ahead of time, oversaw the voting process in my parents’ cabin. The judges lined up outside and were allowed to enter one at a time to vote. To ensure secrecy, Red-haired Niece burned the ballots in the firepit – where we were all gathered, anxiously waiting the results -- before she would announce the winners.
Then the official announcement came : Urban Sophisticate and Dandelion Niece, the aunt and niece team who had taken a risk with two sophisticated curry dishes, had won! All chefs and sous chefs were awarded wooden stars that Red-haired Niece had painted gold or silver. After admiring these wonderful prizes, the contestants gathered at the outhouse to glue them to the walls, a permanent reminder of this delicious event.