It will be hell in Atria’s kitchen as chef, dentist duel

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There are likely many ways to celebrate culinary arts month in July. But at Atria Riverdale, there’s just one way — a Chef Showdown.

The duel to end all cooking duels comes (and goes) Thursday July 19 as Atria’s executive chef — Lori Cavuoti — tries to prove she’s better at making tomato dishes than local dentist Pearl Sussman. The two will filet to the finish at the Henry Hudson Parkway facility in front of residents and the public beginning at 2 p.m. 

“I’m a dentist and I fix teeth for a living,” said Sussman, who runs Pearl Dental Spa at 5683 Riverdale Ave. “But I do spend a lot of time in the kitchen and cooking for the Sabbath and special holidays.” 

Sussman may work on teeth but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to make stomachs smile. She once cooked for 18 people during the holidays, which is something she’s used to coming from a large family. Sussman’s children often opt out of eating take out and ask for her cooking instead. 

She’s been cooking since she was a young girl in her grandmother’s kitchen — a story not so different from her opponent, Cavuoti, who also was taught by her grandmother.

“I used to sit on the washer machine and she would make homemade pasta, and I would watch her put it over a clothing rack to dry,” Cavuoti said. “I just enjoyed cooking, and through the years, I just kept at it and I love it.” 

Cavuoti graduated from Connecticut Culinary in 1999. She has competed before, and walked away victorious. But this year might pose its own challenges — Cavuoti doesn’t like tomatoes much. Yet she’s confident she’ll win.

“I have a lot of creativity and playfulness when it comes to my food and I like putting different flavors together and stuff you would never think of,” Cavuoti said. 

Food, however, runs in Sussman’s family as well. Her great-grandmother owned a restaurant and her father owned a delicatessen. Her great-grandfather, who came to America as a refugee, also was a chef. 

Cavuoti worked at restaurants before as a head chef as well, even opening her own deli in her Connecticut hometown, Taste Buds Deli and Specialty Foods.

As executive chef at Atria, Cavuoti does sometimes face a few hurdles cooking for an elderly audience, only because there is so much to consider in terms of their diets, health concerns and medication. 

“We use a lot of low-sodium products, and we offer sugar-free desserts and few gluten-free products,” she said. “If they don’t like something, I take a lot of suggestions, and I consider lots of their needs and wants.” 

Cavuoti has worked at facility’s geared toward senior citizens in the past as a chef, and has worked in the field for more than 25 years.

Judges for Atria’s Chef Showdown include Eagle Scout Joshua Dorfman, Congressional Award winner Meredith Oppenheim, former Atria chef showdown champion and food columnist Rachel Berger, and Jolie Mansky, daughter of Atria resident Sherry Roberts.

Unlike most competitors, Sussman isn’t concerned about winning or losing but, she said, about having a great time.

“It’s about making people feel good,” Sussman said. “And at my job, people leave my office feeling good about their teeth and I give my patients a nice afternoon. And that’s why I cook.” 

The point of Chef Showdown is not only to entertain the residents and the community, but also to switch up the seniors’ daily routine, said John Baber, a director in the facility.

“I’m just doing some community outreach and I’m trying to invite and get as many people to this event as possible,” he said. “It’s about getting our residents excited and just a chance to do something different.”

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