Improvisation was a necessity as four teams of cooks faced off in a pre-Hanukkah contest to create the best latke.
The blue team “came with one recipe and had to change it on the fly,” said Neil Blecherman of Menlo Park, who was joined by wife Beth and sons Jonathan and David in the Dec. 19 contest at Whole Foods Market in Los Altos.
With dietary restrictions in the family, the Blechermans wanted to create potato-less latkes. But they faced a challenge: Contest rules prohibited flour, matzah meal or additional starches. After their first batch of parsnip and sweet potato latkes disintegrated, the Blechermans shrugged their shoulders and added potatoes, topping the latkes with a fruit-flavored sauce.
The red team also was forced to rethink its latke recipe, which called for plantains topped with a Cuban pineapple salsa. But contestants were limited to the produce at the store, so the Saal family switched to ginger root, yams and caramelized shallots.
“We were at the mercy of the seasonal fruits and vegetables,” said Nate Saal, of Palo Alto, who was joined by son Jared, mother Carol and family friends.
Rabbi Joey Felsen, executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network, laid out the guidelines for the Latke Chef Competition, cosponsored by JSN, Whole Foods and the Oshman Family JCC — no food processors, no electrical equipment and no outside ingredients, not even an herb or spice lovingly shlepped from home.
Stationed at four tables, each provided with a butane burner, a single sauté pan, spatulas, hand graters, peelers and a mixing bowl, the yellow, blue, red and green teams were given 35 minutes to find ingredients in the produce department, prepare the latkes and present eight presumably perfect pancakes on a plastic silver platter to the four judges.
The judges were James Kenji Lopez-Alt, a chef and food writer who signed copies of his book “The Food Lab”; Hadar Harris, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University’s School of Law; Effie Speigler, executive chef at the Oakland Coliseum, and Andrew Siporen, grocery team leader at Whole Foods.
The competition began when Felsen lit the burners. Meanwhile, about 100 kibitzers from infants to grandparents noshed on kosher latkes prepared in the store and cheered on their friends and family members as a klezmer group played tunes.
Taking a nontraditional approach, the yellow team — captained by Ephraim Behar of Palo Alto, assisted by son David and friends Ruthie and Shimshon Ayzenberg — prepared rösti, a Swiss potato fritter. The rösti were stuffed with onions and garnished with fried apple slices. But before the pancakes got to the presentation stage, keeping them from disintegrating was a challenge.
Eschewing yams, fruits and exotic sauces, the green team, all members of Ruah Hamaccabim, a Sephardic Orthodox group based in Palo Alto, stuck to tradition — albeit not a Sephardic one. They used only potatoes, onions, eggs and a hint of parsley, thyme and rosemary. The needed “extra starch” came from the drained potato water.
And their recipe was a winner — the green team received $50 gift certificates from Whole Foods, along with spatulas marked with one word: “Latkes.”
Green team captain Jonathan Benassaya, an entrepreneur who said the cookoff was his first attempt at making latkes, said the “French way” his team used was one of classic simplicity, honoring tradition. He was joined by Dina Betser and Ingrid and Arthur Garzon.
“It’s not the ingredients, it’s how you cook it,” he explained.