Ex-Peterborough resident wins Food Network show
Neely Cohen, who grew up in Peterborough, won $10,000 on the most recent "Sweet Genius" televised cooking competition.
Cohen's prize-winning Egyptian semolina honey featured ground cocoa nibs, crafted to represent stars.
Neely Cohen had to keep quite a secret for six months. In July, the 2004 ConVal grad, who now works as the executive pastry chef at Central Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., traveled to New York City to compete on the “Sweet Genius” show on the Food Network. The show challenges up-and-coming chefs to create, on short notice, delicious desserts using exotic or unexpected ingredients that aren’t announced in advance. They move ahead through three rounds, first making candy, then chocolate desserts and finally cakes.
“I was in for two days of filming,” Cohen said in a phone interview last week. “On the first day, it was all about my background. I’m also a middle eastern belly dancer. They want to give everyone on the show a character. So it was a pretty wild experience.”
The actual competition took place on a full day of filming that went until 11 p.m., Cohen said.
“Everything is done on the spot. You have no recipe, you have to use whatever is in your head. It’s all unexpected and very stressful. There’s a camera in your face from every angle.”
And when it was all over, Cohen was judged the grand prize winner, besting three other competitors with her basbousa – an Egyptian semolina honey cake. She pocketed a $10,000 prize, but had to keep the results confidential until after Dec. 13, when the show aired.
“I was overwhelmed when I won,” Cohen said. “It was exciting, but a bit surreal.”
Cohen is the daughter of Maureeen Cohen of Peterborough and Menashe Cohen, who now lives in Hampton. She lived in Peterborough from the time she was three until she went off to college.
“Dancing has been a part of my life since I could walk,” she said. “I danced at the Monadnock Performing Arts Academy and I worked at the Mariposa throughout high school.”
Cohen attended “a handful of colleges,” eventually graduating from Goddard College in Vermont. She lived in Israel for a while, then attended culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. She also spent time in Peru, where she got a job as executive chocolatier for the Cacao and Chocolate Museum in Cusco.
“That was an incredible experience,” she said. “ I was able to venture into the Amazon jungle and see the fruit harvested and participate in the process.”
She saw a casting call for the “Sweet Genius” show on an online chef’s database and decided on a lark to apply.
“I was called to set up an on-camera interview,” she said. “I did that, then had a phone interview, and then one more. It was a drawn-out process before it all came together.”
Her travels and her education both came in handy when it was time for the final cake round.
“One of the mystery ingredients was cocoa beans. I had written my senior thesis on the ethnobotany of cacao,” she said.
Inspired by her travels, Cohen created the Egyptian semolina honey cake that won top prize.
“I roasted the cocoa beans, husked and ground them, then folded the cocoa nibs into the cake. The cake is dense and moist because you soak it in a honey syrup. I infused alfalfa sprouts, which were the second mystery ingredient, into the syrup.”
She created a sugar garnish that also used the ground roasted cocoa nibs, fashioning it to represent stars, which were the inspiration that she was asked to incorporate into the presentation.
The show aired in December. Episodes can be seen online at www.foodnetwork.com/sweet-genius.
Cohen is now concentrating on her new job at Central Kitchen. She also teaches belly dancing in Cambridge and performs occasionally.
“This was a one-time thing,” she said about the “Sweet Genius” show. “It’s not in my plan to do anything like this again, but who knows? Overall it was a really fun experience.”