Kara Behlke has never thought of herself as a chef.
“I don’t have one of those tall hats,” Behlke, dietitian at the Marion Hy-Vee, says. “But I love food, and I really love to cook.”
That’s good enough for the Food Marketing Institute, which chose Behlke as one of 20 contestants to compete in the first Supermarket Chef Showdown at the organization’s national conference May 1-3 in Dallas.
Behlke and three Hy-Vee chefs will carry the company flag into battle:
- Chef James Alexander, Omaha No. 11, whose passion for cooking took root when he helped his mother prepare family meals. He attended the Metropolitan Community College of Omaha’s culinary program and formerly owned a restaurant and a private chef/catering service.
- Chef Alex Strauss, West Des Moines No. 3, has a culinary arts degree from Kendall College in Chicago and has worked at numerous hotel restaurants, including the prestigious Drake.
- Chef Rich Babcock, Overland Park No. 1, graduated from Johnson County (MO) Community College’s award-winning culinary arts program and most recently was executive chef at the Kansas City Royals’ Kauffman Stadium Club.
Entrants who win each of four category competitions — ethnic, indulgent, family meals, or healthy alternatives — will square off in the final reality show-style cook-off for the “Grand Chef” title.
Contest organizer Linda Glace, who works for a Pittsburgh promotions company, says landing four of the contest’s 20 overall finalists “is a really big thing for Hy-Vee.”
“I have to tell you, you guys were the first to get on board with recipes,” she says. “It says a lot about your company.”
Hy-Vee’s vice president of perishables, Tom Hobt, had urged stores to get involved in the contest, which will judge dishes on flavor, visual appeal, creativity, nutrition and consumer appeal. There were 37 Hy-Vee entries in all.
Marion Store Director Wade Chalstrom “was excited about the contest, but our store doesn’t have a chef yet,” Behlke explains. “Although I’ve been doing some programs in the store.”
That includes periodic healthy meal demonstrations to show shoppers the link between freshness and fitness. Behlke also organizes a community garden and cooking camps for kids to promote healthy lifestyles.
But a chef’s contest?
Well, why not?
She put together three recipes and set out to determine whether a dietitian could, indeed, enter the showdown.
“I looked at the rules, and they defined ‘chef’ kind of loosely as someone involved in the preparation of food,” says Behlke, who before coming to Hy-Vee 2½ years ago was director of nutritional education for the New York Beef Industry Council. “I checked with (contest officials), and by their definition, I was eligible.”
Behlke’s Baked Greek Yogurt with Tropical Salsa was a hit with the selection committee for the healthy alternatives category.
“I was completely caught off guard when I got the call,” she says.
She will face Babcock and his almond bread pudding in the healthy alternative’s category. He will use a recipe developed in tandem with Courtney Kruse, dietitian at Lenexa. West Des Moines’ Strauss is in the ethnic category, and Omaha’s Alexander was selected for the indulgent class.
The contest judges will represent the food industry and media.
Each finalist receives airfare/hotel and complimentary attendance to the FMI2012 conference. Category winners receive $1,000 each. The Grand Chef, organizers say, will enjoy “major bragging rights” and a three-day professional development course at one of three Culinary Institute of America campuses.
Maybe it’s time Behlke looked into one those tall hats.
“I’m sure I can find one on eBay,” she says, laughing.