NU Dance Marathon: Top Chef Evanston

This year’s Northwestern University Dance Marathon (DM)–the 35th one, mind you – will begin on Friday, March 5 at the Norris University Center on the Evanston campus.


Much like the dance marathons of the roaring 20s, dance teams will go all weekend, collapsing in a collective heap on Sunday afternoon.

The NU students who participate in DM are not in it for personal glory, but to raise money for charity. This year’s beneficiaries are Stand Up for Kids and the Evanston Community Foundation.

There are hundreds of students involved in putting DM together annually, and it seems that each year more “pre-events” are scheduled. This was the third year for the very popular Top Chef Evanston, held January 30 at Now We’re Cooking, a culinary facility located at 1601 Payne Street.

Fifteen groups of three “chefs” each were fielded by various campus organizations, and a call was put out to the beneficiaries to get in on the fun of competition. The Evanston Community Foundation (ECF) agreed to send a team, and enlisted me as a member. We were given a long list of rules, a $25 gift certificate to Whole Foods (the corporate sponsor), our category (dessert) and the identity of the “secret” ingredient: ginger.

We showed up to the group team meeting only to find that the collective age of our team (which also included ECF President and CEO Sara Schastok and ECF Board Treasurer Kevin Mott) was greater than the others by a factor of at least six. Ouch! Nell Funk, owner of Now We’re Cooking, and award-winning Pastry Chef Mary McMahon quickly put us at ease, showing everyone the ropes of their generously appointed kitchens.

On Game Day, we all assembled in the Now We’re Cooking kitchens along with the other eager chefs. NU students and fans were bused over from campus, and a carnival atmosphere presided. Student coordinators Bennett Weisse and Daniel Hessel smoothly organized the crowds and the kitchens and the competition began.  And these kids could cook! Who would guess that a bunch of college students would be whipping up the likes of Halibut with Ginger and Crispy Vegetables en Papillote?

We were in the fourth group to present our dish to the celebrity judges (including new NU President Morton Schapiro, Evanston Mayor Liz Tisdahl, Va Pensiero chef Jeff Muldrow, and NU Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald), and after a frighteningly quick 30 minutes of preparation start to finish, we raced out to present our masterpiece: Crispy Wonton Cup with Ginger Ice Cream, Bittersweet Hot Fudge Sauce, Baked Bananas Foster and Crystallized Ginger (trust me, it was easier than it sounds!). The judges loved it, but we were bested by a fraternity group known as Man vs. Food and their homemade ginger ice cream concoction. What – Haagen Dazs wasn’t good enough for them?

So the ECF Ginger Snaps (our team name… cute, right?) didn’t win, but over $1000 was raised that day for the 2010 Dance Marathon, and everyone had a fantastic time watching people throw ingredients around the test kitchen, eating snacks, listening to NU’s co-ed a cappella group Extreme Measures, and watching NU’s famous “sandwich guy” Maurice Nix vanquish pretenders to his throne.

The moral of the story? Winning isn’t everything, and fame is fleeting. But NU Dance Marathon sambas on.

Learn more about Dance Marathon at

Extra bonus… the non-winning (but still damn tasty) recipe!

Gingery Bananas Foster Sundaes
(serves 6)

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 6 slightly under ripe bananas (still firm)
  • juice of 1 large lemon
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • Coconut or Ginger Haagen-Dazs ice cream or frozen yogurt
  • Bittersweet Fudge Sauce (recipe follows)
  • Crystallized ginger nibs

Preheat oven to 375 F. Using 1 T of the butter, butter a shallow baking dish or jellyroll pan large enough to hold all the bananas. Peel and halve bananas and lay them, cut-side down, in prepared dish. Drizzle with lemon juice.  Combine remaining soft butter with brown sugar and ground and fresh ginger. Dot bananas with ginger-butter mixture. Bake for 20 minutes, basting twice with butter sauce. Serve hot with ice cream and drizzle with fudge sauce. Sprinkle with Crystallized Ginger Nibs.

Bittersweet Fudge Sauce:
Yield: makes 1–2 cups

  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • ¼ cup light corn syrup
  • 3 drops pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp. water

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking to blend, until chocolate is melted and smooth. Best served warm. Store the sauce, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week; reheat gently.

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