By SEAN BARRON
You never know when a friendly hot-sauce competition with a family member might turn into a hot business opportunity.
That’s what Philip Aliberti discovered between competing with his father-in-law, a gourmet chef, and starting his company, Uncle Phil’s LLC, 14 months ago to sell several varieties of the product.
“For years, I had been making this sauce and giving it to friends and family, always with the same results: ‘Wow, you ought to sell this stuff,’” said Aliberti, who’s also a 24-year Air Force veteran stationed at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna.
Aliberti and his wife, Susan, who also runs the Bristolville-based business, got a lot more than immediate family to sample their homemade sauces. That’s because they were among the estimated 54 local and regional vendors who took part in Saturday’s second annual Our Valley Cooks Food Expo competition.
Hundreds of people attended the 10-hour event at Mr. Anthony’s Banquet Center, 7440 South Ave., where they sampled a mouthful of foods — everything from pizza to pita bread.
Main highlights of the expo were the more than 100 recipe entries judged in the categories of pasta, entrees and desserts; numerous cooking demonstrations, including two by Melissa d’Arabian, a celebrity chef with her own daytime show on the Food Network; and autograph sessions with d‘Arabian.
Items for sale included saucepans, stainless-steel cookware, stoneware china and hand-blown crystal.
Proceeds went to Meridian Services Inc. of Youngstown, an agency that helps people overcome various addictions and provides counseling and mental-health services.
Other tasty samples included Romano chicken dishes, caramel walnuts, tabouli, cheese cubes and pork tenderloins prepared by students in the Mahoning County Career & Technical Center’s Culinary Arts program.
“I’ve been cooking since I was little, and I like to experiment a lot,” said Ashley Bilchik, a Campbell Memorial High School senior and one of more than 30 juniors and seniors in the program at MCCTC in Canfield. “I love working with my classmates.”
Several students were preparing the dish topped with cheese over baby-leaf lettuce and complemented with balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
And they worked side-by-side with d’Arabian during her two cooking demonstrations.
Those yearning for an unusual treat probably found a visit with Eileen McClure to be a sweet one indeed.
McClure, who runs Eileen’s Edibles from her Cort- land home, enjoys giving her own twist to recipes handed down through several generations of her family.
McClure’s specialties include Italian wedding cookies in five flavors and sugar cookies with lavender and violet frosting, she said.
“I like to experiment with odd flavors and people seem to like it,” she said, adding that the violet frosting smells like the flower.
McClure’s business grew from an appearance at a food show last November at the IX Center in Cleveland. That facility, she said, invited her to participate in the local food expo, for which she had nothing but praise.
Also volunteering at McClure’s booth were Jay Sacco and Nancy Affinito.
It would be a mistake to think that the annual event catered only to humans, though.
That’s because on one table were 12 varieties of pet snacks made by Diane Tolle and Cindy Townsend, both of whom recently started True Love Homemade Pet Products from their homes.
“We were looking for a place to showcase [the business] for the first time,” Tolle said of their participation in the food expo.
True Love, which also sells pet shampoos made from natural ingredients, provides a good opportunity for Townsend’s daughter, who is disabled, to help her at home, Townsend said.
Their table also displayed common foods that are dangerous to pets, such as grapes, onions, chocolate, coffee, yeast dough, mushrooms and raisins.
Milk also shouldn’t be given because it can cause diarrhea, Tolle said.