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Which Chicagoan will undergo a home cook makeover? Vote now

Mary Jane Tal57 Near North Side: 'About two years ago friend was coming visit from New York he promised he

Mary Jane Tala, 57, Near North Side: "About two years ago, a friend was coming to visit from New York, and he promised he would cook for me while he was in town. I realized that my oven had not been used even once in the 15 years I’d lived in my condo."

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We’re giving one of these three Chicagoans a culinary makeover in six weeks. It’s up to readers to choose which one. Vote online at Voting ends on May 4.


John Bubala had a 10-year run with his restaurants Thyme (later Timo) on Halsted Avenue and Baccala on Milwaukee Avenue. He now teaches at Kendall College and is a consultant to restaurants and food companies. He has three kids and lives in Chicago.

His goal in this project: to teach our cook that “this is not alchemy or mystical or magic. This is what millions of people do every day.”

He will be instructing our cook in his or her own kitchen.

“If I can help one person with their health and nutrition and lifestyle down the road without sounding evangelical, that’s a really cool challenge and it’s exciting to be a part of it,” he says.

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Updated: November 22, 2011 5:02PM

Meet three helpless cooks.

Mary Jane Tala, 57, is an accountant who stores gardening equipment in her oven. The Near North Side resident owns three pots and eats mostly cereal, Lean Cuisine entrees and salads, none of which, she points out, require cooking.

Maureen Galloway, 38, is a marketing exec and mother of two, and thus, often under a time crunch. She feels stuck in a “food rut,” relying heavily on convenience foods for her two kids, and blah meals such as chicken breast and unadorned vegetables.

Matthew Kainer, 26, is a Skokie firefighter. Wait — don’t firefighters know their way around a kitchen? Not this one. Most days, he uses his tiny kitchen to unwrap takeout containers or reheat leftovers.

Earlier this year, we told you we were looking for helpless, bad, frustrated cooks. We asked for your stories about just how bad it is in your kitchen, and just how badly you want help.

The stories came in; the words of Kainer, Galloway and Tala stuck with us.

To their credit, all three know how to boil water. And they can’t be faulted for lack of trying.

Kainer attempts chicken breast from time to time but, “I usually end up overcooking one side or the whole thing.”

It’s the same story with fish, he says. “It seems like when I bake it, I bake it too long, even though I follow the recipe to a T.”

The one time Tala made Jell-O, she ended up with a layer that looked “like tire treads.”

Galloway’s deficiency, she says, is in meal planning and strategizing.

“It’s how can I cook in a more convenient way? Can I do it fast and good, and how do I do that?” she says.

Complicating matters, Galloway had a stroke about six months ago. She’s fine now, but there are certain things she can’t eat, so she often must prepare multiple things for herself, her husband and the kids.

Tala also has health-centered motives. She ended up in the hospital in the fall for an emergency appendectomy, and took that as the perfect time to quit smoking. The next step: learning to cook.

“I tell you, processed food is no good for you. It’s full of preservatives and sodium. And it’s expensive,” Tala says.

We’re ready to help. But we still need your help.

It’s up to you, readers, to choose which of these three Chicagoans you want to see undergo a home cook makeover in six weeks. They all need help, in their own ways.

Vote online at Voting ends on May 4, after which we’ll announce our “winner.”

We’ll track the progress of our cook through our six-week experiment, guided by chef John Bubala, a Chicago restaurant veteran, culinary school instructor and consultant to food companies and restaurants.

At the end of it, and unbeknownst to our cooks — until now — there will be an assignment: to cook dinner for four (and Bubala).

One could consider that a challenge. Hopefully, it will feel more like a reward.

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