Greenbank woman is master chef
July 3, 2008 · Updated 7:48 PM
"Frances Maxwell has a special gift for good cooking. I can see how somethin' will taste, honey, she said Thursday. I can just see how flavors will go together.That talent, and a lifetime of practice, earned the Greenbank grandmother a trip to New York earlier this year to compete in the Northwest Regional finals of a new national cooking contest - MasterChef USA. The competition between Maxwell and two other amateur chefs will be broadcast on KCTS Television today, beginning with the national finals at 1:30 p.m. The Northwest segment broadcasts at 2:30 p.m. People ask me how I can be on television representin' the Northwest with my Southern accent, Maxwell said, with a laugh. But the contest was about good cookin', not any particular food from any particular place. Anyway, Maxwell, a retired travel agent who transplanted herself from Georgia to Whidbey in February of 1999, has rapidly put down roots in the Greenbank community of Honeymoon Lake.And the recipes she cooked up for the MasterChef judges were all her own invention.Finalists were asked to prepare a three-course menu for under $75 and this is what she served: roasted carrot and beet soup garnished with sour cream and chives; bourbon-roasted pork tenderloin with kiwi chutney and waffle-cut yams marinated in maple syrup and brandy then deep-fried in beer batter; with pear tart in coconut crust for dessert. Scott Stevenson, of Gresham, Ore., was the regional winner with a vegetarian menu that included bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and kalamata olives; wild Northwest mushroom stuffed rigatoni with cream sauce and asparagus with garlic; and flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting. The other finalist, Melanie Hartley of Bellingham, prepared whole-wheat focaccia with rosemary garlic oil; pasta with Mediterranean salsa, fresh greens and shrimp; and blackberry cobbler.The recipes, along with those from all 10 regional contests, have been published by West 175 in a book titled MasterChef 2000 - the ultimate community cookbook. Maxwell learned to cook as a small girl in her grandmother's Atlanta kitchen, where almost everything, from the herbs to the eggs, was home-grown. She let me make biscuits and cut them out with a snuff can lid, she remembers.Maxwell sharpened her skills during her marriage to a traditional Southern husband who didn't want his wife to work. But you've got to grow to exist, Maxwell said. So my way to grow was to increase my knowledge of food, and that was OK because he loved good food.She took classes from chefs like PBS's Jacques Pepin, restauranteur Paul Prudhomme and a top Mandarin Chinese chef. She also began to invite people into her home to teach them to cook a particular meal, and then stay for dinner. It was fun, she said, and it's something she's hoping to do again on Whidbey, as a small business. It's both a learning and dining experience, she said. In the meantime, she and a friend are doing a little catering. But mostly she cooks for the love of it and because she loves to entertain. Her dining room table was set for a dinner party for six. And later this month she'll serve Brunswick stew, a Southern speciality, to a group of 21 Japanese visitors who will be on Whidbey as part of the Friendship Force cultural exchange program.Her interest in the program is one of the things she brought with her when she decided - in the course of a one week visit to Whidbey Island two years ago - to sell up in Georgia and settle here. But it wasn't one of the things she checked on before she bought a piece of property and contracted to build a house.I'm an Episcopalian, so I did visit St. Augustine's in the Woods, she said. I looked into senior services. And I checked out my local grocery store. I wanted to be sure I could get most anything, because cooking is just what I do. Entertaining is what I do, and I want to be able to continue to do that.No problem there, she said, even though she does still send home to Georgia for specially ground corn-meal. In fact, she loves everything about her new home.And honey, if people are interested in the Friendship Force, or food, or anything, you just tell them to call me.The number is (360) 331-6204.-----------------Tune inThe finals of the first MasterChef USA cooking competition will be shown on KCTS Television today, beginning at 1:30 p.m. Each of three competing cooks will prepare a three-course menu costing less than $75 in two-and-a-half hours. At 2:30 p.m. KCTS will show the Northwest Regional competition held earlier this year. Finalists were Frances Maxwell of Greenbank; Melanie Hartley of Bellingham, and Scott Stevenson of Gresham, Ore. "