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Chef gets saucy with chutney

Cheryl Hoban with a big pan of the cranberry chutney sauce that got her into a national food competition. BRIAN BASHAM/DL NEWSPAPERS

When Cheryl Hoban’s U.S. Food representative Shawn Sweere suggested she enter a food competition, she agreed to do it, though reluctantly.

“What do I have to enter that would be different?” she asked herself.

So she entered her cranberry chutney and won the first round of competition. She moved on to the national competition, and is competing for cash prizes, kitchen equipment, a trip to Las Vegas and to have her chutney produced and sold through U.S. Foods.

She entered not thinking it would be a big deal.

“Who’s going to pick my little sauce?”

But she’s finding that a lot more people are voting than she anticipated.

Hoban will win the next round of competition by online votes. Anyone can go to and vote once a day. Hoban’s chutney is listed under the Midwest Region. Voting is open now until Sept. 20.

Cooking, not typing

“I cooked a lot for my brother and father,” she said. “I found it was something I really, really loved to do.”

In college, though, she said she took every secretarial class possible. Until her senior year when she decided she should follow her passion instead. So she enrolled at the Detroit Lakes technical college and learned professional cooking from instructor Loretta Warren.

Warren also worked at Fair Hills Resort, and in 1975, Hoban did an internship at Fair Hills and has been there ever since.

Since Fair Hills is only a summer job, Hoban has worked at a variety of cooking jobs including restaurants, colleges and high schools. She’s found that she doesn’t like the restaurant style though.

“I don’t like to cook to tickets,” she said.

She said she enjoys the family style like at Fair Hills where she can cook larger quantities of fewer foods.

She has since retired from cooking at other establishments ­— she retired from Waubun High School in 2009 — and just works at Fair Hills in the summer, which has extended its season to April to mid-October over the years.

Perfecting the chutney

Hoban said she wanted the pork she was serving on Thursdays to have a chutney with it. So she started to throw some fruit and seasonings together.

“Apples and cranberries go with pork,” she said.

She wanted a little sweetness so she added some mango and then some apricot.

“The first time or two wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t tangy enough.”

The first few batches were tweaked and then she had eight weeks of serving to guests at Fair Hills to perfect it. They serve the pork and chutney every Thursday for dinner.

She said that her food representatives have all said that she asks for ingredients and supplies that no one else asks for — and that’s a good thing.

“I want to be different,” she said with a smile. “I want it to be original, Fair Hills. I want to give guests things they don’t have at home.”

Sweere, who serves as territory manager for U.S. Foods, said it’s that uniqueness and passion from Hoban that prompted him to ask her to submit an original recipe for the competition. Chefs were allowed to enter in four categories: bakery, hot appetizers, sauces or dips and spreads.

“I have been with US Foods for almost three years, and in those years I have had the chance to delight my taste buds with many wonderful dishes,” Sweere said.

“I have seen many creative ideas that become staple points in a chef’s career. Cheryl is always challenging me on every sales call with questions for her recipes. I think this is the main reason I wanted her to join the Next Top Product Contest.”

He said that his company is looking for chefs that develop foods and recipes that will “keep kitchens cooking.”

“I believe Cheryl is one of those chefs that makes this happen for Fair Hills Resort, and her cranberry chutney has the potential to become the next top product.”

Next step in process

The eight top vote-getters from the national competition will travel to Las Vegas to compete for the top prize and produce the Next Top Product. The top winner will receive $5,000 cash, and the establishment (Fair Hills in Hoban’s case) will receive $15,000 in equipment from U.S. Foods.

“I could really use a vegetable steamer,” Hoban said.

Even if she loses at the Las Vegas competition, Fair Hills will receive $1,000.

“Then I’ll lower my sights to an emergent blender,” she said with a laugh.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.