How long has cooking been a big part of Lance Gray's life? Well, it was his grandmother who got him started feeling right at home in the kitchen a long time ago.
"I've always enjoyed hosting dinner parties and cooking, and it was my grandmother who was the biggest influence on me as far as cooking is concerned," said Gray, a 54-year-old Schenectady resident and semifinalist in Hannaford's "Home Chef Challenge with Mario Batali." "So, I do all the cooking. I like to joke with my wife, 'If I didn't cook, we wouldn't eat.' "
A project manager for a Capital Region insurance company, Gray is one of three Albany region semifinalists trying to advance to the final round and win a visit to chef Mario Batali in New York City. The overall winner's trip includes a taping of ABC's "The Chew," the opportunity to meet Batali and have dinner at one of his restaurants, and a $1,000 gift card from Hannaford.
Gray will show off his Limoncello Cake on Monday night at the Hannaford store at 900 Central Ave. in Albany. Also qualifying for Monday's event were Nancy Holzman of Glens Falls (with zesty Tuscan pasta sauce) and Todd Schillinger of Swanzey, New Hampshire (with Chicken New Hampshire). The winner of Monday's competition in Albany will join the winners of identical events held in Burlington, Vermont, and Portland, Maine, and the overall winner from those three locations will be determined by Batali himself as the grand-prize winner.
"They wanted an original recipe, so I went with something my grandmother used to make," Gray said. "I make my own limoncello with my own seven-minute frosting that's kind of a meringue-type frosting, made with egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and some vanilla. I'll make the cake Monday morning, bring that with me Monday night and do the frosting and the decorating there."
Batali is the author of 11 cookbooks and co-owner of 25 restaurants in New York City, Boston, Las Vegas, Singapore and New Haven and Westport, Connecticut. He recently opened La Sirena Ristorante on the plaza level of New York City's Maritime Hotel in Chelsea.
Mike Vail, president of the 181 stores in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, said his company is happy to sponsor the "Home Chef Challenge with Mario Batali."
"Hannaford is ecstatic to partner with chef Mario Batali, a culinary visionary who shares our passion for food, home cooking and hunger relief," Vail said. "The submissions highlight how home chefs use the locally sourced, fresh ingredients that are so popular in our stores. We look forward to hearing exciting stories and eating fantastic food during the semifinalist tastings."
Gray said he's becoming quite popular as a cook in his own little circle of friends and family.
"I have my own Facebook page, and I'm starting to get a following," he said. "My brother and sister-in-law live in North Carolina, and my sister-in-law said to me, 'Do you know I have a dozen or so people that can't wait for you to come back to North Carolina so they can cook with you.' I really do enjoy it."