Staten Island Cooking Contest Grows in Diversity

Though best known for its Italian American population, Staten Island is rapidly diversifying, something I saw firsthand last Saturday morning while covering the Staten Island Advance’s Taste-off at the Hilton Garden Inn on the island’s west shore.

The event brought together 33 finalists in an annual cooking competition that dates back 40 years. Judges, many of them chefs at local restaurants, sampled each of the culinary creations. The winner will be announced when the Advance publishes its annual cookbook on March 16. 

But after the professional judges made their rounds, five “people’s choice” judges were picked randomly from the audience to sample the dishes and crown their own winner.

Competition was impressive. I sampled a few of the dishes myself and chatted with several of the contestants. Staten Island’s Italian American heritage was well represented, with homemade ravioli, struffoli and zuppa di scrod.

But diversity was also represented at the event. Emily Cohen of Annadale served “Better than Brooklyn bialys,” something that she learned to bake online for her brother who moved to Arizona. It was only after a lifetime of enjoying bialys that Cohen and her husband discovered that their families were each from towns within an hour’s drive of Bialystok, Poland, home of the bialy.

Behind her was Zaka Youssef with Zouka’s Grand Gourmet Cheesy Zatar Bites. The Syrian native and Dongan Hills resident uses zatar, a Middle Eastern seasoning made from a wild thyme, in her dish, which looked like a miniature pizza. Though my roots are like those of many Staten Islanders—Italian and Irish, with a tiny bit of German—I was able to chat with Youssef about Syria and Lebanon, and show off the chaplet I often wear around my wrist, from the Shrine of St. Charbel in Lebanon.

But most impressive to the People’s Choice judges was Jyotsna Jain’s Pot of Gold, a dish that mixes whole wheat vermicelli, potatoes and peas, tossed with walnuts, coriander, turmeric, mustard seeds and other spices. Jain explained to me that the dish is a complete meal, with carbohydrates, protein and subtle flavors. And it is vegan.

One of the professional judges told me that he felt the vegan and gluten-free categories had come a long way in recent years. Previously, the foods were not always a pleasure to sample, but this year, the finalists in those categories had really stepped things up.

Going into this event, I would not have predicted that a finalist in the vegan category would win the people’s choice award. But Jain’s blend of colorful spices—which she neatly displayed in colorful bowls next to her dish—wowed the people’s choice judges. Her dish will be featured in the Advance cookbook, so cook’s all over Staten Island can make the dish as well.

Below are some other photos from the event. If you’re on Instagram, I encourage you to follow not only my own page, ihappentolikenewyork, but also that of the Advance’s food editor, Pamela Silvestri, at stateneats.

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