Leslie Fillnow of Camden was named the winner of the Portland regional competition in the Mario Batali Home Chef Challenge Dec. 6, for her original recipe, Farfalle with Pesto and Scallops.

Hannaford Supermarkets, a partner in the Home Chef competition, issued a statement Dec. 12, that it had modified the awards for finalists: "Rather than select a single winner of the Home Chef Challenge, Hannaford will provide all three finalists with Grand Prize awards.  Each individual will receive a trip for two to New York and comparable food experiences in the city. Hannaford congratulates each of the participants on their accomplishments."

Hannaford's statement was in response to sexual misconduct allegations against Batali reported in the media this week. Originally, a single grand prize was to be awarded by Batali, for an all-expenses paid trip for two to New York City to attend a taping of ABC’s "The Chew," meet him, and have dinner at one of his restaurants.

Fillnow was one of three semi-finalists chosen to compete in Portland, based on their submission of a favorite original recipe, and their inspiring story about the recipe, and how the recipe can excite others about cooking at home. Identical events occurred in Burlington, Vt., and Albany, N.Y., with one finalist selected at each location.

She prepared her Farfalle with Pesto and Scallops at a tasting competition at O’Maine Studios in Portland and presented her recipe to a panel of local judges. The Portland judging panel included Channel 8 WMTW anchor Cristina Frank; Bangor Daily News writer and author of The 207 Foodie blog Sarah Gelber; and Q 97.9 FM on-air personality Lori Voornas.

The judges also prepared dishes and competed for a first-prize $1,000 Hannaford gift card and second-prize $500 gift card, to be donated to a charity of their choice.

In an interview Dec. 8, Fillnow said she became familiar with Batali's pasta while teaching Italian language and cooking at the Penobscot Language School in Rockland. She uses Batali's pasta in her classes because it is bronze-extruded, which produces a rougher surface on the pasta, holds sauces better and gives the pasta a heartier flavor. Using Batali's products, she noticed the contest, and after thinking it over, she filled out the entry blank.

While she began her relationship with the Penoscot School as a board member, raising funds for a new kitchen and other renovations, and is now board president, teaching Italian cooking, and now beginner and intermediate Italian language classes is something she does for fun and enjoyment.

Italian cooking is a family tradition for Fillnow, passed down by her nonna (grandmother), and the kitchen is Fillnow's comfort zone. "That's where I like to be. It's soothing," she said.

"On all of the major holidays and every Sunday, we ate at grandmother's. She would start her pasta sauce on Saturday, and that's what they would use all week long. They had pasta with everything. We had Thanksgiving turkey, but you always had a pasta."

"You centered around food. You cooked when you were sad, when you were happy, when something went wrong, when something went right," she said. "Food always meant family."

When Fillnow found she was selected for the contest, she was excited. She wanted to make a dish that "the everyday shopper could do." She chose her recipe keeping in mind the inspiration from her Nonna not to waste food, and the simplicity and "lack of exaggeration" of Italian cooking.

She chose ingredients and portion sizes to produce a dish that is affordable to make. Another plus is that cooking time is about 30 minutes. Basil and pine nuts can be expensive at this time of the year, so Fillnow made her pesto with the leafy tops of celery stalks, parsley, almonds and then added ricotta. She thought she would use a Maine product, and chose scallops. Her recipe calls for eight scallops and serves four. Each person gets two scallops, which are cut in half to make four pieces.

"It's sufficient protein," she said. "In our home, protein was an expense, so you needed it, but you used a reasonable amount," she said. She noted that in traditional Italian cooking, "you didn't have meat every day."

"In our country, we've gotten away from all that. We tend to exaggerate everything," she said. In Italy, "just because you like scallops, you don't douse the whole dish with scallops. Just because garlic tastes good, you don't add more garlic," she said.

As the competition neared, she began to get nervous. "Then I said to my husband, 'It doesn't matter if I win, it's the experience.' That's how I went in there."

Each competitor was asked to make a presentation. Fillnow spoke about her inspiration from her grandmother, and a little bit about food insecurity in Maine. "Each year, food insecurity in Maine is increasing. I think we all have to learn how to use less, and eat right amounts," she said.

Fillnow wore her nonna's earrings to the competition at O’Maine Studios in Portland. "That's part of the talisman," she said. "I wear my grandmother's earrings when I want things to go well. When I fly on airplanes. My husband always laughs," she said.

While the competition was filmed, Fillnow kept her calm by talking about the recipe and preparation as if she were teaching a class. That helped her relax, and helped with the order of what she had to do, she said.

"The other two people were equally nervous," she said, "but we had fun."

"The other thing about home cooks," Fillnow said, "is you're there because you're passionate about it. You're really giving a piece of your soul. Not that regular chefs don't, but we're not celebrity chefs. The ego isn't there to compete. We were trying to help each other."

Fillnow's dish, Farfalle with Pesto and Scallops, brought the colors of the Christmas season to the table: green pesto, white scallops, and some some red cherry tomatoes marinated with olive oil and salt as a topping. She served the dish on her own plates, along with candles she made from red and green bell peppers.

At the end of the contest, when the announcer called out her name, Fillnow said her adrenaline was so high, for a moment she thought, what did she say? and then realized that was her name.

Filllnow's interest in food extends beyond her Italian heritage. She has taught sushi-making at the Penobscot Language School, and in the new year is looking forward to opening a vegan restaurant and heated yoga studio in Rockland. The cafe-style restaurant and yoga studio will be located in the Thorndike Building. Work is beginning on a ground floor space with an entrance on Tillson Street, with a plan to open in April, she said.

Courier Publications assistant editor Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at smustapich@villagesoup.com.