Ty and I are empty nesters save for a gang of kitties we brought in from the outside years ago who are essentially wild but live in our condo with us. We have time to travel and since kitties don’t need cars and they don’t go to college, we have a few extra dollars to treat ourselves kindly for working 80 hours a week. This is why we are holiday travelers – my favorite tradition is heading up to Reynold’s Plantation at Lake Oconee in Georgia every Thanksgiving to a beautiful resort where we sit and watch the leaves turn and take long walks around the lake.

Reynolds Plantation Lake Oconee

Ty sipping cider in the Lobby at Reynolds Plantation

We have enjoyed the beauty and the food of Reynolds Plantation for years but it was a complete surprise when the head chef of the Ritz Carlton tapped me to be a judge for their Iron Chef competition that would take place on Thanksgiving Day in their Grand Ballroom during their spectacular holiday buffet, a foodie extravaganza that quite frankly makes a Vegas buffet seem a little pedestrian.

I was excited and of course I was honored as they had discovered I had authored a cookbook that had been nominated for three IACP culinary awards. Then I hesitated – I love Food Network and Iron Chef, but they didn’t know I had a gastric bypass and not only would I have to judge ten dishes, but I had no idea of what the Secret Ingredient would be. What would I do if it were a food that I could not physically eat?

Food Network's Iron Chef

I stepped back, thought about it and told them it would be a great honor to be an Iron Chef Judge!

My family was excited as well. My father and his wife Diane would be joining us this Thanksgiving – although it was a toss up as to whether Dad was more excited about my being chosen as Iron Chef judge or that his idol Richard Petty would be delivering Santa to the outdoor ‘Lighting of the Holiday Trees’ ceremony.

Oh yes, one other thing… I would be having Thanksgiving Dinner with my family before the judging, or at least sitting with them, as I knew that if I ate, I wouldn’t be able to take a single bite of the Chefs dishes.

We were announced as judges, we were asked to say a few words about our excitement and anticipation – it was kitschy just like the show. The Chefs for the competition were announced and the Secret Ingredient unveiled as APPLES!

Allez, cuisine!”

You know the deal, five dishes from each chef in one hour – we were asked questions about what we thought about apples and to comment on the Chef’s progress in Kitchen Stadium while we sipped champagne. It was incredible and a lot of fun. When time was up, we sampled each dish. I knew that with apples I had to be very careful as there would likely be honey or maple syrup used to highlight the sweetness in savory dishes… and one Chef even made a Cider Martini which I sipped with great caution as it could have taken me out with both sugar and alcohol. Each dish was more delicious than the last. My co-judges were FINISHING each of their plates, while I would carefully create a single perfect bite of each dish.

We rated each dish based on use of the Secret Ingredient – Apple and how it was highlighted or showcased. It was not even important who won as both Chefs created delicious apple dishes. However, the CHOCOCOLATE SHOWPIECE used as the trophy gave Chef Jann Chupin bragging rights as the winner. This was a great day that I will never forget in Kitchen Stadium.

Ty and I both encourage you to travel to Lake Oconee and Reynold’s Plantation, it is a spectacular location and beautiful resort just about one hour out of Atlanta.

The Secret Ingredient - APPLES!

Iron Chef Judge - Susan Maria Leach at the Ritz Carlton Reynold's Plantation

Iron Chef Judge Susan Maria Leach at the Ritz Carlton Reynolds Plantation

Iron Chef at Ritz Carlton Reynolds Plantation Susan Maria Leach

Crab salad with Pancetta & Apples Iron Chef Ritz Carlton Susan Maria Leach


Ritz Carlton Iron Chef Bacon Wrapped Grouper with Apple Consome

Chicken with Wild Mushroom & Apple Stuffing Iron Chef Susan Maria Leach Ritz Carlton


Filling out the score cards Iron Chef Judge Susan Maria Leach at Ritz Carlton Reynolds Plantation



Judge Susan Maria Leach Iron Chef Ritz Carlton Reynolds Plantation




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