Things get spicy at Atria’s annual Chef Showdown

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Thirty minutes on the clock, one ingredient on the table and endless possibilities make for one exciting afternoon.

The patio at the Atria Riverdale assisted living facility was transformed into the perfect setting for the July 25 Chef Showdown between Lori Cavuoti, Atria’s culinary specialist, and food blogger Rachel Berger — also known as the “Kosher Dinner Lady.”

Berger was part of the first Chef Showdown two years ago, and won. She returned to the competition last year as a judge, coincidentally the same year Cavuoti claimed victory. For this year’s third showdown at the 3718 Henry Hudson Parkway facility, it was a battle of the champions.

A core belief of Atria Senior Living is that food brings people together. An event like Chef Showdown is proof of this, according to Sara Humphreys, Atria Riverdale’s assistant executive director, and also allows the chefs that work hard to feed residents a chance to show off their original recipes in front of the community.

Under the pressure of the clock and an attentive audience of four judges and 40 residents, the two past winners had only a half hour to prepare a dish that included peppers as a key ingredient.

While Berger spent her 30 minutes preparing a vegetarian-friendly couscous, Cavuoti was busy making pepper jam, goat cheese and arugula pizza, pepper jam and habanero pepper wings, and meatballs. She also made a pepper juice that was passed around to the audience members with extra ice to help beat the heat.

Cavuoti took the contest as an opportunity to take a break from the dishes she normally prepares for those living at Atria Riverdale.

“I love being able to do something different,” she said. “I would never make this in a million years.”

Berger came up with her couscous recipe just for the showdown, making sure it highlighted the flavors hidden inside the peppers.

“I tried to think, ‘How could I highlight that ingredient?’” she said. “To me, peppers are light. I try to focus on healthy and vegetarian food, so I thought this would be a nice dish that could go as a side or a main depending on what you add.”

The best part about both dishes? Everything was kosher, perfect for a kosher living community.

As the chefs chopped, grilled, sautéed, taste-tested, sprinkled and drizzled away, Humphreys kept the audience entertained and updated, asking residents about dishes they’ve made in the past.

Judges included Atria Riverdale resident Goldye Elson, restaurant owner Bebe Rodriguez and firefighters Richard Banat and Capt. Charles McCormack from Engine/Ladder 52.

Elson took advantage of her seat close to the action.

“I’m busy watching,” she said, “because if I really like it, I want to be able to make it again myself. That’s the fun for me.”

The audience overwhelmingly favored Cavuoti’s pepper jam meatballs to Berger’s couscous, but the judging panel favored Cavuoti’s pizza out of everything presented.

The competition gave the Atria chef some new ideas to test out with milder flavors for the facility’s cocktail hours every Tuesday and Thursday. Although for main entrées, Cavuoti might have a harder time incorporating newer spices.

“We have 200 residents that all have different taste buds,” she said, “so you try to make them all happy at the same time, which is kind of tough.”

All in all, what mattered more than who won was what the day meant to those calling Atria Riverdale home.

“We do it for the residents, the excitement on their faces and they get a blast out of it, they get joy out of it,” Cavuoti said. “They’ll talk about it for days.”

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