After weeks of planning, Thursday, February, 10, 2011 was finally here!  Chair of the Garner Education Foundation (GEF) Amy White and Rita Hines Saad of  Garner TV and Appliance approached me months ago about participating in a Cooks for Books event that would raise money for the Garner Education Foundation. I jumped at the opportunity to serve; it’s when I feel most alive!

The day had finally come and the kitchens were bustling with chefs, sous chefs, television hosts and radio personalities. The aromas wafting throughout the kitchens had everyone salivating.  Sharon Delaney and I were busy with our always helpful sous chefs preparing samples for three hundred plus people waiting to eat our Chicken and Sausage Gumbo (made in a beautiful Le Creuset French oven pot) Rice, Claude’s Cajun Coleslaw and Homemade French Bread! Our Executive Producer, Kim Green, was busy shooting for the My Carolina Today show, and as always, the beautiful Valonda Calloway rooted her team on. The delightful Lisa Prince and hilariously genuine Brian Shrader from WRAL’s the Local Dish were in the kitchen next to us. Gravy, a wonderful Italian restaurant downtown, joined in the fun as Executive Chef Tony Fuscoe wowed the crowd with his flavorful and expensive lamb chops! Along with Tony’s amazing food and ABC’s Angela Hampton’s delightful personality team ABC won the crowd over, insuring their win for the popular vote!

My very talented sous chefs David Parker, Andre Bruinton and Amber Hunter were incredible! The sky is the limit for these chefs!  Justine Barron, Meredith Brookover and Janiece Floyd did an awesome job assisting the other chefs. We got to business, prepping everything, while “cutting up” the entire time; one can never be too serious in one’s kitchen!

The much-anticipated event began at 5:30 pm.  Enjoying the smiles on everyone’s faces and the laughter heard throughout the live kitchens, 6:30 had finally arrived! Expecting the judges,  we began plating up our second batch of gumbo, rice, slaw and french bread!  We watched with sweaty palms, racing hearts and a flurry of emotions (excitement, nervousness and, well, a drop in my blood sugar : )  as Dean, Jeff Hadley, from Wake Technical Culinary and Pastry School, Dean, Jeffrey Bane, of the Chef’s Academy and the lovely radio and television personality, Lynda Loveland, arrived in our kitchens to judge our food. The three criteria were creativity, presentation and taste. Could we win this competition?  Wanting to raise money for the foundation was at the forefront of our minds, but winning would be nice, too!

In an effort to embrace the Cooks for Books challenge, which would ultimately benefit Garner’s Literacy Program, my signature dish was inspired by the Cajun children’s book, Three Little Cajun Pigs by Mike Artell! I called by dear friend, Maureen, who was originally from Louisiana and told her my plan for the event. To my amazement, she knew the author! Can you believe that? Mike generously sent me a signed copy of his book for the children who will benefit from the foundation. Maureen was kind enough to bring all she had, gumbo plates, chargers, cups with fleur-de-lis etchings on them, mardi gras beads, etc. We set up our place settings for the judges in true Louisiana style. We made sure the book, which had inspired the recipe, was placed where all could see and we had our menu framed for everyone.

As the evening progressed, I was sure I had been beaten by these incredible chefs who had given it their all. Who would reign the Cooks for Books Champion? Would it be WRAL, ABC or NBC-17? To our surprise the judges chose our signature dish the winner and I’d now like to share the recipes with you:

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Claude’s Cajun Coleslaw