Judging the Del Monte “Crown the Cook” Contest

Loanne Chiu preparing her kale salad in the Del Monte test ktichen.

Last Friday, I spent the day in the beautiful test kitchen at Del Monte headquarters in San Francisco, tasting and scoring, over and over again, to help choose the first ever “Crown the Cook” winner.

I’ll be the first to sheepishly admit, too, that I had forgotten that the canned fruit and veggie manufacturer was based in this fair city I grew up in. Del Monte actually started in Monterey, which of course makes so much sense given that city’s rich cannery history.

As its business skyrocketed, it moved its headquarters to San Francisco and branched into Walnut Creek for its R&D facilities. It also has operations in Southern California, where its pet food manufacturing, which accounts for about half of its sales, is based.

My fellow judges (L to R): Alice Harding, Loren Druz and Mario DiFalco.

More than 600 folks from around the country entered the “Crown the Cook” Facebook cook-off contest in the categories of sides, mains and desserts. One finalist was chosen from each of those categories to come to San Francisco to cook their dish before a judging panel that consisted of Mario DiFalco, Del Monte’s director of marketing; Loren Cruz, Del Monte’s director of product R&D; Alice Harding, Del Monte’s head chef; and yours truly, the only “outsider,” if you will.

Each recipe had to use at least one Del Monte product. And each contestant had 90 minutes to complete their dish, which was not as easy as it sounded. Just you try cooking while a video crew is filming all around you, a host is peppering you with questions, and Del Monte employees from all parts of the building are watching your every move and snapping photos.

But the three contestants, all seasoned cooks and past participants in many other cooking contests, were more than up to the challenge.

Chiu's crunchy, vibrant kale and corn salad with a punchy Asian vinaigrette.

Loanne Chiu of Carmel was up first with her “Thai Nutty Corn and Kale Salad,” made with Del Monte canned corn and a vibrant Asian-style vinaigrette. Chiu, who admitted she came to cooking late in life, now “reads cookbooks as my bedtime story” each night.

Naylet Larochelle gets going on the lima bean salsa for her chicken dish.

LaRochelle's "Glazed Peach-Chipotle Chicken & Lima Bean Salsa."

Naylet Larochelle of Florida, a finalist in this year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off, cooked up “Glazed Peach-Chipotle Chicken and Lima-Bean Salsa.” Yes, Del Monte canned lima beans, of all things, in a salsa of chopped red and green bell peppers, red onion, cilantro, and lime juice. Del Monte canned peach halves got grilled for a smoky-sweet accompaniment.

Carmell Childs talks about how she loves to bake.

Childs' "Mandarin Tin-Can Tower Cakes.''

Finally, Carmell Childs of Utah created “Mandarin Tin-Can Tower Cake.” She used boxed cake mix to create a batter that was enriched with a can of Del Monte mandarin oranges (fruit, juice and all). The batter was poured into a jellyroll pan to bake. Then, cleverly using the actual empty can of Del Monte pineapple (with the top and bottom removed) as a cutter, she cut out circles of the baked cake, which were frosted with whipped topping mixed with the crushed pineapple, as well as instant coconut cream pudding mix. Three frosted circles were stacked on top of one another to form one adorable little cake, which was frosted again on top and all around the sides, before being showered with a mixture of toasted coconut and toasted chopped almonds.

We judges deliberated at length, but in the end, we had to give the grand prize to Childs for a cake that was not only beautiful and luscious, but ingenious, too.

Childs took home $3,000 worth of new cookware, and the notoriety of being the first “Crown the Cook” champ.

Childs takes home the crown...er, chef's hat.

Find the three finalists’ recipes on the Del Monte “Crown the Cook” Facebook page.

More: Scenes From My Time Judging the 2012 Pillsbury Bake-Off

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