Top Chef Cook-Off with the Cabreras Is Among the Highlights of Family Weekend

Posted: October 15, 2013 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: October 17, 2013 at 6:29 am

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By Michele McDonald

There will be a rumble in the Johnson Center food court when George Mason University President Ángel Cabrera squares off against Top Chef Mike Isabella on Saturday for a Family Weekend cook-off.

Chef Mike Isabella

Chef Mike Isabella

George Mason’s president is pitted against his wife, Beth Cabrera, who joins the renowned Washington, D.C., chef at the stovetop. Fans of Top Chef’s season 6 will remember Isabella, who also was named “The People’s Best New Chef Mid-Atlantic winner for 2012” by Food & Wine magazine.

Skillets will begin sizzling at noon in the JC’s atrium. Contestants will be whipping up recipes from Isabella’s new cookbook, “Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian.” They will use portable equipment. Plus, there will be big-screens in the atrium with streaming live footage of close-up views so viewers can check out President Cabrera’s chopping technique.

Chef Isabella and Dr. Beth Cabrera will be creating “Brussel Sprouts with Pancetta and Maple Glaze” and “Goat Cheese Gnudi with Basil, Prosciutto, and Tomato.” President Cabrera and Allysa Hotz, manager of Isabella’s G restaurant in D.C, will be competing with “Cavatelli with Mushrooms and Smoked Mozzarella.”

And, yes, there will be a tasting. There also will be a judging.

Gabriella Petrick, associate professor in Nutrition and Food Studies in the College of Health and Human Services, will be judging the results along with Student Government Chief of Staff Liam Hennelly and Rachel Steiner, off-campus advisor. Petrick will be giving a talk after the cook-off.

Tossing a celebrity chef into the food and family friendly atmosphere of Family Weekend gives a taste of what the D.C. area can serve up. “We wanted to show the families of our students what D.C. has to offer in terms of culinary experiences,” says Emilie Dubert, graduate assistant for Off-Campus Student Programs and Services and also a Top Chef fan.

After the competition, foodies can find out why certain foods taste so delicious while others merely provide sustenance. Petrick, who’s also a history professor, will delve into the complexity of taste during her talk, which begins at 1:15 p.m., also in the atrium. She will discuss the umami taste, which frequently is associated with Asian cooking. For example, miso soup is the quintessential umami taste.

Layers of interacting amino acids create umami. “It’s not as if you just taste sugar or salt or bitter,” Petrick says. “It’s a complex taste.”

Fortunately for those in attendance, Petrick will demonstrate what she means by umami with a tasting. She’ll begin with a piece of beef fillet. Then another tasting will be the fillet with parmesan-reggiano cheese. And finally, the fillet will be served with a sauce of dried morel mushrooms. Amino acids from the beef, cheese and mushroom sauce build to create a layered taste.

Some people describe umami as a savory flavor. Petrick describes it as “unctuous” because umami coats the mouth and adds weight to the flavor. While different amino acids are responsible for the taste, the Japanese simply describe it as “deliciousness.”

And unlike other flavors such as salt, which reaches a saturation point, umami is the only taste that progress in complexity as it becomes stronger, Petrick says. The taste is a newcomer to the Western palate and only became acknowledged in 2009 after neuroscientists showed how umami lit up different segments of the brain than that of salt, sweet, sour and bitter.

Family Weekend is hosted by Orientation and Family Programs and Services. Other festivities include:

Friday, October 18

  • Taste of Mason
  • Mason Family Welcome Dinner
  • Family Weekend Unplugged

Saturday, October 19

  • Cabrera Family Cook-Off
  • Faculty Spotlight
  • Mason Uncorked
  • Mason Family Dinner and Game Show

Sunday, October 20

  • Family Weekend 5K
  • Green Eggs and Ham Jam — Sunday Brunch

Write to Michele McDonald at

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