When Aiza Del La Cruz was growing up in the Philippines, she was obsessed with watching cooking shows. She found the chefs fascinating and their uniforms eye-catching. She thought to herself, “I think I want to be one of those guys.”
She did just that, and a few weeks ago, at The Dish Cooking Studio in Toronto, Chef Aiza Del La Cruz went head to head against five other competitors in the East Side Mario’s and Barilla Pasta Challenge, where she won first prize with her Creamy Pesto Prosciutto Penne Pasta.
For the past four years, East Side Mario’s and Barilla Canada have partnered up to motivate, inspire and nurture the next generation of young chefs through their Pasta Challenge. As long standing foodservice providers – Barilla has been the official pasta supplier for East Side Mario’s for five years – both companies share a passion for Italian gastronomy and raising the profile on Italian cuisine.
The yearly Pasta Challenge provides all East Side Mario’s employees, not just those who work in the kitchen, an opportunity to design and submit an original recipe for consideration. The recipes need to meet certain criteria;they must be easily executable, demonstrate passion, and are different than any items on the current menu.
This year saw over 50 submissions, which were then whittled down to 17 semi-finalists. The 17 dishes were cooked by East Side Mario’s head chef and then taste-tested by staff who are tasked with the difficult job of narrowing the submissions down to the final six dishes.
The six finalists, who hail from East Side Mario’s locations across Canada, were flown into Toronto to participate in the final round of the competition. Recipes were judged on creativity, presentation and taste, with the winning dish to be featured nationally on East Side Mario’s new menu, which launches in October.
Chef Del La Cruz works at the Bayer’s Lake East Side Mario’s, located in Halifax. She has been cooking there for the last eight years, since immigrating to Canada from the Philippines on a working visa sponsored by the company. Over the years she has worked her way up from line cook to kitchen manager and has cultivated a home away from home within the East Side Mario’s family. “Working for East Side Mario’s – it’s not a workplace, it’s like family – it is family,” she says.
Her winning dish was inspired by the amount of requests she would get from staff and customers for a pesto Alfredo. “I wanted to bring together pesto and a cream sauce. People love a pesto and they love a cream sauce, but there was nothing like that on the menu.” She added the prosciutto for a touch of Italian flare. She loves the versatility of the sauce – “you can use it with chicken or make it vegetarian.”
Chef Del La Cruz had to face off against some fierce competition. Lydia Dedora, a bartender from the East Side Mario’s Shawnessy, Calgary location, was also inspired by prosciutto, presenting a Prosciutto Chicken and Spinach Spaghettini. Chef Matthew Stevenson, currently a line cook and team leader, has been working at the East Side Mario’s Guelph, Ontario location for over 15 years. His Pollo Picante Florentino incorporated the sauce from a popular East Side Mario’s menu item – the Hell’s Kitchen Chicken – into the dish.
This competition is a successful example of how a company can build an inclusive workplace, by providing employees with an opportunity to further develop their careers. East Side Mario’s has created an environment that promotes creativity and innovative thinking and offers employees mentorship and resources to build their culinary expertise and help further their knowledge in the industry.
As for Chef Aiza Del La Cruz, she couldn’t believe she had actually won the competition. “Is this for real?” she kept saying with a large grin. Asking how she was going to celebrate, an even bigger smile comes over her face. “Actually my girlfriend is here, I brought her with me to the competition. She just came over to Canada a few months ago from the Philippines, and we’re here for good – she’s a resident now too. We have a lot to celebrate together!”
Here’s the winning Creamy Pesto Prosciutto Penne Pasta recipe:
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Active Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Pasta Bowl Serves 2
½ box of Barilla penne pasta
1tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon raw garlic puree
1 slice of prosciutto, julienned
3 grape tomatoes, cut in half
¼ cup green zucchini, sliced and quartered
¼ cup red peppers, julienned
¼ cup green peppers, julienned
1tablespoon store-bought pesto sauce
½ cup store-bought alfredo sauce
1tablespon sun-dried tomato, diced
1teaspoon parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon oregano garlic seasoning
In a medium sized saucepan, bring water to a boil. Drop in Barilla Penne Pasta and cook for 10 – 11 minutes.
As the pasta cooks, heat oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.
Add prosciutto, grape tomatoes, zucchini and peppers. Cook for 30 seconds.
Add pesto and Alfredo sauce. Bring to a simmer.
Drain pasta and add to sauce.
Place pasta in a serving bowl, ensuring all ingredients are brought to top of dish, while using spatula to capture all sauce.
To garnish, evenly sprinkle chopped parsley, sun-dried tomatoes and oregano garlic seasoning. Buono appetito!