Fruity Pebbles pasta. Pancake mix-based fettuccine. Chicken cheesecake.
These home chefs certainly got creative this summer, whipping up impressively edible dishes week after week and remaining undaunted even in the face of increasingly out-there Seattle Times Pantry Kitchen Challenge ingredient lists.
For the final “Champions Round,” all finalists who placed in the top three of any previous round entered dishes off a new ingredients list: zucchini, cinnamon, popcorn and peaches. The Seattle Times food team will pick the top three recipes and make the dishes before choosing a winner based on taste, presentation, creativity and incorporation of the ingredient list.
But who’s coming up with these recipes, anyway? Teenagers spending the summer at home, for one. An actor, cooking for fun in between Zoom rehearsals. Cooks of all ages, occupations and levels of experience across the Greater Seattle area.
We profiled six of the 12 participants who’ve been most successful and most steadfast through the five rounds of the Pantry Kitchen Challenge.
The winner, chosen from among the 12 finalists will receive a $50 grocery gift card and endless bragging rights, but more importantly: soon, they will be a champion.
- Age: 71
- Residence: West Seattle
- Occupation: Retired, but still acts as a hobby
- Pantry Kitchen Challenge Chops: The one to beat? Shapiro is the winningest challenger to date. (Finishes: First in Round 3, second in Round 5, third in Round 2)
Paul Shapiro is to thank for some of the more out-there ideas in the challenge, including that Fruity Pebbles pasta. His Round 5 submission, a multicolored caramelle ravioli with the cereal-based dough and a filling made from tofu, spinach and cherries, came in second.
Shapiro is the only one of the 12 Champions Round finalists who has placed in the top three thrice throughout the five rounds of the Pantry Kitchen Challenge.
Shapiro lives in West Seattle and is currently in auditions over Zoom for the Theater of Possibility’s “Abraham’s Land,” a musical about the Arab-Israeli conflict which was supposed to open this fall but has been rescheduled for next year.
He’s cooked for decades, and particularly loves to cook for other people. He and his friends have a 30-year-old tradition of cooking extravagant multicourse dinners for New Year’s, upping their game as the decades have passed and as cooking skills improved over time.
Back in the ’80s, he would invite casts over for a themed homemade dinner at his house whenever a show closed.
“There’s nothing better than cooking for people and they go, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic,’” Shapiro said. “It’s like getting applause. Standing ovation.”
For Round 2, he submitted a timpano, a dough-wrapped Italian baked pasta dish he made to feed 40 people at a party before the pandemic. The dish is famous for an anxiety-inducing final flip from the pan, one he was pleased to see still worked with a pancake-mix dough for the challenge.
In Round 3, when tasked with making something from lettuce, ground meat, soy sauce and canned fruit, nine people submitted lettuce wraps and four submitted meatballs. Shapiro made a butter and lettuce panna cotta with mandarin orange mascarpone whipped cream and cha siu brittle.
While it won him first place in the round, he said it wasn’t exactly a winner.
“The brittle was soy and ground beef, and it was a really creative way of including those elements in the dish,” he said. “And it tasted terrible.”
- Age: 57
- Residence: Shoreline
- Occupation: Travel consultant and owner of Maria’s Cultural Gastronomy
- Pantry Kitchen Challenge chops: Latecomer who joined the challenge in Round 4; made an instant impact, winning Round 4 and placing third in Round 4.
Maria Galvao entered the Pantry Kitchen Challenge after a foodie friend told her about it, hopping into Round 4 on a whim with a chicken baked Alaska.
She was out of town when that same friend called to tell her that she had won.
“It never occurred to me that I would send anything in, much less get first place,” she said.
Maria owns Maria’s Cultural Gastronomy in Shoreline, which offered cooking classes, private dinners and international food-based trips before the pandemic. Now, she’s looking at options to replicate the experience online.
Maria was born in Portugal and raised in São Tomé, a small African island to the west of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and said her parents and grandparents hosted dignitaries and doctors from the United States and France.
That childhood experience sparked her fascination with cultural differences around the dinner table, one that informed her decision to start her business and educate others.
Her background inspired the recipe she entered in Round 5 — a vegan miniature spinach confetti cake she conceived based on Portuguese spinach cake.
Galvao started her business around a decade ago, years after becoming more interested in cooking when her son Mario Lloyd was born.
She didn’t want her son, now 21, to be raised on bland food, so she started expanding the household menu. At 18 months old, he fell in love with raw oysters.
Maria usually comes up with her recipes on the spot, and her family has said a hidden camera wouldn’t be a bad idea — so they would know how to make anything for a second time. Throughout the challenge, she’s been having her son or husband write down the recipes as she cooks.
While she didn’t expect to win the round with her first entry, she said it was so much fun she had to keep entering. The vegan spinach cake came in third.
“I ended up doing it again and I won third place,” she said. “I’m like, what, why do I keep winning these things? It doesn’t make sense.”
Steve Venard and Cathy Martin
- Ages: Venard is 66 and Martin is 63
- Residence: Shoreline
- Occupation: Retired
- Pantry Kitchen Challenge Chops: Competed in all five rounds. The only “couple” entrant out of the 12 Champions Round finalists. Won Round 1, placed third in Round 3.
Using or writing recipes at all is a departure from the on-the-fly cooking Steve Venard and Cathy Martin usually partake in together.
Their strategy of adding what feels right and not being too strict about measurements was a problem for them during the Pantry Kitchen Challenge.
“That’s probably been the biggest challenge, actually writing up the recipes,” Martin said. “What did we do to get there?
“You create from what tastes good at the time,” Venard said.
The two are retired and “living in sin,” as Martin puts it, a widow-widower couple who met on eHarmony in 2008. The pandemic means they can’t travel as much as they would like to, with the two being big fans of food tours in different cities, but they’re enjoying cooking together and coming up with recipes for the challenge.
Venard and Martin won the first round of the challenge with a green bean pesto pizza, a dish they liked but that wasn’t too far out of the ordinary for them. They submitted dishes for every round of the competition, including lamb meatballs and olive chimichurri atop pancake mix-naan for Round 2 and pineapple kimchi lettuce on Korean pancakes for Round 3.
Their Round 4 submission, Nashville hot chicken sliders with bacon bourbon green onion jam, was their favorite of the Pantry Kitchen Challenge recipes they devised — though they said they were all so good, it’s hard to pick a favorite.
“We start in a direction with each one and make a turn at some point into something that tastes really good,” Martin said. “If it doesn’t taste good, our rule is ‘we’re going to make something else.’”
- Age: 68
- Resides: Kirkland
- Occupation: Science fiction author
- Pantry Kitchen Challenge Chops: Competed in all five rounds; won Round 2
Losing his eyesight seven years ago wasn’t as traumatic of an experience as some might think, Jeff Abrams said. It was a gradual shift, but one that required real adjustment in ways both large and small. For instance, after loving to cook for decades, he had to learn to do it blind.
Abrams, 68, left a job at Microsoft when his vision started deteriorating. At this point, he can’t see straight in front of him but still has some peripheral vision, so he’s sure to keep pans where he can watch them from the side. Measurements are difficult, but there are workarounds; Abrams has been baking more after purchasing a “talking” scale last year.
He’s a science fiction author and spends his days at home with his wife Libby, who helps measure things out for him from time to time, and his guide dog, Seymour.
Abrams won Round 2 of the challenge, using pancake mix, olives, cheese and herbs to make a pancake fettuccine with mushroom, roasted pepper, olives and Parmesan crisps.
He said he’s developed a sense over time for what goes together — one that’s served him well in the challenge, but his love of cooking comes from the practice of it.
“You follow procedures and you get outcomes,” he said. “It just appealed to my inner sense of wanting logic.”
- Age: 40
- Residence: Capitol Hill
- Occupation: Independent civil engineer
- Pantry Kitchen Challenge Chops: One of only five home chefs to compete in all five rounds; placed second in Round 3
Micaela Ellison didn’t quite understand the rules of the Pantry Kitchen Challenge at first, thinking it was about using what was in your pantry instead of specially chosen ingredients.
But when she realized her mistake, Ellison, a civil engineer who works independently from home, was hooked on the challenge of being more creative in her cooking. So she adjusted and kept entering.
Though she’s always loved food, Ellison’s interest in cooking developed more seriously after visiting the West Seattle Farmers Market while home from college one summer.
In the 20 years since, she’s shopped at farmers markets and signed up for community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Her food is inspired by that love of local produce and from travel, having explored places including Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Ellison said that while none of the ingredients throughout the challenge were that difficult to incorporate, the boxed cereal and others gave her pause because she thought she could make a better dish without it.
“It’s not like, ‘How would I use this ingredient?,’ it’s, ‘I don’t want that ingredient.’”
- Age: 13
- Residence: Federal Way
- Occupation: Middle school student going into eighth grade
- Pantry Kitchen Challenge Chops: One of only five home chefs to compete in all five rounds; his loyalty was rewarded — we granted him a wild card entry to the Champions Round
Connor Simpson, 13, thought he was onto something when he came up with the idea for his Round 1 submission, an egg in a hole with tomato sauce and seasoned potatoes.
He didn’t know at the time that an egg in a hole already existed, but thought it was noteworthy that someone else had the same idea he did.
“I just thought it was a cool idea, but it’s an actual thing,” he said.
Simpson has been cooking for two or three years and was inspired after watching shows on Food Network and the Cooking Channel. He likes to cook for his parents, with stir-fry and a German apple pancake being his favorite dishes.
He entered the challenge after reading about it in the paper, and submitted dishes for every single round. Now that he’s spending far more of the summer before eighth grade staying inside than he would like to, the challenge has been a welcome weekly activity.
Though Simpson was a fan of savory crêpes he made for Round 2, the egg in a hole was his favorite entry.
His mom and dad thought the potatoes on his Round 1 submission were a little hard, but Simpson doesn’t like them soft anyway — and besides, he wrote in his submission, the egg was well cooked and the bread was perfectly crispy.