Cook-off competition heats up for United Way Campaign


Biomedical engineering major Karla Montejo during the cook-off competition

Ten contestants. Three cook-off rounds. One cause.

The Taste of FIU Cook-Off Competition held recently is fast-becoming one of the most popular on-campus fundraisers for the United Way Campaign.

The contestants, all amateur chefs and all Panthers, dazzled audience members as they battled it out for four hours in the Graham Center Ballrooms. The competition featured three rounds with three different meals. Each round included a mystery box – ingredients each chef had to use in their creations.

For the first go around, chefs whipped up a chicken breast dish with ingredients like Kaffir lime leaves, goat cheese and micro wasabi. Ingredients required for the second round included chicken liver, tamarind paste, Israeli couscous and orange blossom water. For the final round, contestants created a dish featuring flank steak, red curry paste, coconut milk and parsnip.

To qualify for the cook-off, contestants – which included the Director of Human Resources Jaffus Hardrick , Vice President of Engagement Saif Ishoof, a doctoral candidate student and an engineering major– had to raise $350 for the United Way.

Sophomore communication arts major Dillon DiBartolomeo, who won first place, says the cook-off tested his limits and pushed him outside his comfort zone.

DiBartolomeo, who started at FIU last spring, says one reason he signed up for the event was to get involved in all FIU has to offer – and cooking was the best way to start.


Dillon DiBartolomeo won first place at the cook-off this year.

“I’ve always cooked,” he says, adding that he inherited the love for it from his grandmother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when he was born.

DiBartolomeo learned to cook using her recipes. “She had hundreds of recipes on tiny note cards,” he says. “That’s the way I was able to get to know her.”

With his sisters cheering him, DiBartolomeo paired one of his mother’s recipes, ground broccoli slaw, with his roasted chicken breast. For the chicken liver plate, he ground up the liver, thinking of the ground beef in a taco. He made a chili marinade to go with the chicken liver and added a Cuban-inspired twist to the meal by substituting rice and beans with the Israeli couscous and beans.

The star-studded panel of judges included local and international professional chefs such as Ofer Cohen, chef at FINKA Table and Tap; Daisy Diaz, chef and owner of Sabores Café Doral; and Albert Diaz, chef at ZUMA restaurant. The three FIU guest judges were FIU Baseball’s Head Coach Mervyl Melendez; Chief of Police Alexander Casas; and Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving Duane Wiles.

For Ishoof, who won third place, the event is a reflection of FIU’s spirit.

“Taste of FIU combines all of the best ingredients of our FIU: students, faculty and our commitment to community through service,” he says. “Our Taste of FIU beneficiary, the United Way of Miami-Dade is leading on impactful work to the highest need communities in Miami. I was honored to place number three, and I will be sure to bring my skills again next year –Masala is the spice of life!”

The entire fundraiser, hosted by the Graham Center in partnership with External Relations, Campus Life (MMC) and United Way, is a two-part event featuring the United Way Auction and the Taste of FIU Cook-Off on the first day and a brew festival on the second day.

FIU’s United Way campaign goal this year is $200,000. To donate, click here.