Amateur Hour: Home Cooks Are Moving In On Professional Chefs

I started cooking 20 something years ago, back when the only connection between the names Julie and Julia was in the spelling. At that time there were basically two recognized classifications of cooks: the professionals, who cooked in restaurants, and the amateurs, who cooked at home– but there were also a small group of cooks who hovered somewhere in between. These were the home cooks who were legendary for their culinary prowess. People like the BBQ master, whose smoky, succulent ribs required more supplies and days to assemble than a rocket ship, or the soccer mom, who was crushing up Heath Bars and adding them to homemade ice cream long before those two hippies from Vermont thought to do so.

With the exception of a few success stories, like Debbie Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies, most ambitious cooks never thought to expand their talent beyond the home kitchen.

Today, however, the story for nonprofessional cooks is quite different. For those who aspire to take their talent to the extreme, there are shows like The Next Food Network Star, where amateur cooks compete for their own television show, and Breaking Into Tesco, a British reality show in which contestants compete to get their food product manufactured and sold in one of England's largest supermarket chains.

San Francisco has definitely caught the fever too, and is now amassing a whole new generation of culinary talent. Food carts, a fantastic venue for enthusiastic cooks to show off their skills, seem to be appearing on every corner with their popularity based less on the reputation of the cook, than the quality of the food. Local favorites include a curry cart, a pie cart and a pizza cart, none of which is run by a professional chef.

At La Cocina in San Francisco, affordable commercial kitchen space is provided to low income entrepreneurs (primarily women) with the intent of helping them produce and sell their products. Currently over 20 businesses create food here, the ideas for most of which started out in home kitchens.

Another recent San Francisco food craze sees both amateur and professional chefs competing in local cooking competitions, often attended by as many as 200 guests. SF Food Wars is a monthly event where roughly 20 cooks compete for cash, prizes and a coveted “champion” title. The event theme changes each time, with past themes ranging from macaroni and cheese to bread to holiday side dishes.

Another monthly competition, Iron Cupcake, features cooks facing off on rotating cupcake themes. Sometimes the themes revolve around flavors, as with this month's 'bacon', or around more broad concepts, such as last month's 'love'.

In both of these competitions, attendees sample every item and it is their collective vote that determines the winners.

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