Tony Gomez makes a stacked Cobb salad
Inspiration for new recipes can bubble up from unexpected sources, like the can of stewed tomatoes that sparked Tony Gomez to create a scholarship-winning salad recently in the Elgin Community College-Fisher Nuts Recipe Competition.
While working on another recipe, Tony drained the juice out of the can and turned it upside down to empty it. When all the tomatoes came out in a nice, neat pile, Tony had a eureka moment.
"It gave me an idea for a salad," says Tony, a culinary student at ECC. "What if I stacked the ingredients?"
The result is his Stacked Cobb Salad, a recipe that earned him $500 from John B. Sanfilippo and Son, Inc., parent company of Fisher Nuts.
Layers of traditional Cobb ingredients, chicken, avocado, tomatoes, bacon and gorgonzola are stacked in a can, then pushed out with a bottle and sprinkled with pecans. The colorful layers are easy to make and attractive, especially when finished with a drizzle of pecan sherry vinaigrette.
Tony is one of six culinary students who earned prize money in the competition, but at 60 years old and starting a new career, he stands out from his fellow chefs-to-be.
An electrical engineer for more than 25 years he was laid off two years ago.
"I decided to follow my passion and go into culinary," says Tony, who will be following in the footsteps of his mother who owned a fine dining restaurant in New York.
Ultimately he hopes to open a restaurant, but not in Illinois.
"It will probably be somewhere in the Southwest where it's nice and warm and no snow," says the Columbian-born father of three.
This most recent competition is just one of several accolades Tony has earned. He was chosen to be a student delegate to the National Restaurant Association show in May and he was selected to ECC's 2011 Austria Team which will host Austrian students at the college in October.
Working in his mother's restaurant during high school, Tony didn't warm up to it as a career.
Instead he became a medic in Vietnam, a police officer in California and eventually earned an electrical engineering degree. But he always enjoyed cooking at home.
"As I got more experience with food and exercised more creativity I built a passion for it," he says.
He handles the majority of the cooking for his family, barbecuing and making salads in summer, preparing soups and roasts in winter, and practicing what he's learning at school, like osso bucco.
"I don't have a particular style, the mood these days is fusion cuisine," he says.
As for his age, Tony isn't paying attention.
"I will probably never retire," he says. "I get bored too easily."
Studying something new and living life at full throttle keeps his neurons firing and his enthusiasm high.
"I do have a passion for culinary, but I have an even greater passion for learning.
"I don't see any barriers."