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Celebrity cooks meet challenge for charity

Joni Hubred, News Editor

Karen Hale and Julia Seykora would not call themselves experts in the culinary arts, but they’re putting their skills to the test this month for a good cause.

“When (organizer) Justin (Ohnstad) called to invite me to be a celebrity chef, I started laughing,” Hale said.

She and Seykora will battle on March 30 for a sparkling disco ball trophy during a Cooking Challenge held at Torey’s Restaurant & Bar in downtown Owatonna. Ohnstad was part of a group that created the first challenge, livestreamed over three weeks in 2021, to help their community get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

While they competed only for bragging rights, this year’s event has a deeper purpose.

Proceeds from ticket sales for the 6 p.m. event will go to Rachel’s Light. The Steele County nonprofit provides housing and a range of services designed to empower women and children who are experiencing homelessness.

It’s fitting, then, that both celebrity chefs say they honed their cooking skills in motherhood.

“Typically speaking, I am a ‘mom cook’,” Seykora said, adding her son’s tastes run more toward chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. “This is really going to stretch my cooking muscles. I don’t get to do this kind of thing very often.”

Hale cooked for her daughter and three stepchildren, so “quantities were big.” However, she was also part of a gourmet club that met monthly. The hosts would choose a country to “visit” food-wise and then were responsible for the entrée, while others brought appetizers and side dishes.

She was thinking about that experience when she said yes to the cooking challenge.

Both women said the charity aspect also drew them in.

“The donation made it purposeful,” Seykora said. “The cherry on top is knowing you’re doing good for an organization that relies on others.”

While the last event was only open to online spectators, this year’s will have an in-person crowd upstairs at Torey’s. They’ll watch some live cooking, then sample both dishes and vote on a “people’s choice” winner. A panel of three judges–Karly Gomez, Annie Harman, and Matthew Hughes–will also pick their favorites.

Torey’s will also keep both items on their menu for a week. And what will those items be? Both chefs are keeping the details under wraps until the big night.

Seykora has a kind of secret weapon. Having worked in the food and beverage industry for years, she knows a few chefs.

“I chose something very simple that would pair nicely with what Karen chooses, and I want it to be enjoyed by the masses,” she said.

As of last Friday, Hale was still doing her research.

“I know the area I want to land in,” she said. “Knowing they have to cook for a hundred people and keep it on the menu for a week, I want to keep it simple, but also want to make it stand out.”

A limited number of tickets for the March 30 event are on sale at $50 each; you can find them at Kottke Jewelers and Owatonna Shoe in downtown Owatonna.

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