It was a tough competition, but if you ask contestant Stephanie Goldfarb, she’ll tell you it was the latkes that sealed her victory.

In the first round of Food Network’s “America’s Best Cook,” which pit home cooks against each other for the eponymous title, Goldfarb, of Chicago, brought out the big guns: a bone-in strip steak and a side of her mother’s famed potato latkes.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 6,” says the Midwestern transplant and Arizona native. “I grew up in a big Jewish family, and everyone was always hungry. My mother is an incredible cook. She taught me about how to make food taste good—not just how to cook well, but how to cook flavor out of ingredients.”

“That’s her latke recipe. I only know how to make them one way.”

Goldfarb, the Program Director of Youth Philanthropy and Leadership at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, was one of 16 home cooks selected to compete on the Food Network program, which premiered in April. Four renowned Food Network stars—Cat Cora, Alex Guarnaschelli, Michael Symon and Tyler Florence—representing four different regions of the country, selected their team of two home cooks to battle through a succession of difficult tasks. Goldfarb represented the North region and was mentored by Cincinnati’s Michael Symon, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef.

“I didn’t think I would last one day on the show,” she says. “Once I got my hands on ingredients and was in the kitchen, it was like all of that lack of confidence sort of melted away. I cooked my heart out.”

After six grueling episodes, Goldfarb seized the crown with her chipotle and butternut squash soup topped with a poblano-filled pot sticker. Goldfarb’s delight was palpable to at-home viewers.

“I was in disbelief,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that Bobby Flay said my name. But then I looked at Michael Symon, and he was freaking out, and I knew it was real.” As a result of her win, Goldfarb brought home $50,000 and certifiable name recognition.

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Photo courtesy of Food Network

Since early 2013, Goldfarb has hosted a supper club, the Seven Species Supper Club, out of her home in Edgewater. Proceeds benefit the Chicago Women’s Health Center, a provider of comprehensive and affordable health care for women and trans people in Chicago. The twice-monthly supper clubs now have waiting lists, as individuals vie to taste Goldfarb’s award-winning creations. While her creations are always vegetarian, Goldfarb, a self-defined “recovering vegetarian,” will prepare meat on request. Her education on the Food Network has improved her technique with meat, instilling within her greater confidence.

Seven Species is Goldfarb’s passion project. “It combines social work and philanthropic work and cooking and entertaining all into one package,” Goldfarb says. “It’s an awesome platform for me to do the kind of work I want to do, and it ultimately leads to feeding people good food and supporting causes that really do matter.”

In the months since her crown, not much has changed. She bought a pasta crank, and an ice-cream maker she’d long had her eye on, but the fire is still there. She hasn’t sold out, not on her passion for cooking, or on her spirited work in social justice. She’s returned renewed to her job as a social worker at the JUF, where she is preparing to launch two exciting new programs for Jewish teens.

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Photo courtesy of Seven Species Supper Club

The first, Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, positions teens as the philanthropists. A group of 25 high school students work together as a philanthropic foundation to allocate $25,000 to worthy endeavors.

“(The teens) learn how to do it through the lens of Jewish values,” Goldfarb says. “They really learn the ins and outs of philanthropy: how to read budgets, how to do community-needs research. They become philanthropists by the end of the year.”

The other program, the Research Training Internship (RTI), is a paid 14-month internship for Jewish young women. JUF collaborates with DePaul University to meet with the interns to discuss race, class, gender, power and privilege and provide training on academic research methodologies. The end result will be a research report on what it means to be a Jewish girl.

And as for her prize money? “I’m cautious to use it,” she says. “I can’t believe it’s mine!”

Check out Goldfarb’s recipe for chili lime salt at Oy! Chicago. “I think summertime is the best and also the most challenging time of year to cook because everything is super ripe, and it’s ready to eat, and it’s so beautiful and delicious,” she says. “I try to not change it too much because it’s so beautiful the way it is. Stuff like chili lime salt that you can just sprinkle over beautiful, perfectly ripe fruit is something I think that’s great.”

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