It was a birthday that Chef LeAnn Jackson isn’t likely to forget. Not only did she turn 28 on Sunday, April 24, but the cheesecake company she owns with her husband Joseph took two prizes at LocalShops1’s Top Local Chef contest, including best of show.
“This is our first Top Local Chef competition and we were very surprised when we won,” LeAnn said of their victory.
Nine chefs competed in the challenge, four in the sweets category and five in the savory category. Brandon-based Le’Anns Cheesecakes ‘N More was the people’s choice in the sweets category and the judges’ top choice overall. The winning confection was a creamy cheesecake topped with orange jam and a piece of orange-infused chocolate sitting on orange-infused brownie crumbs.
Two Gulfport restaurants, Stella’s and Smokin’ J’s BBQ, were the judges’ choice and the people’s choice, respectively, in the savory category. OobAla Mode Pastries was the judge’s choice for sweets.
The event, held at the Gulfport Casino, was attended by some 200 guests plus the nine chefs and their entourages. Other providers of local goods and services were also there with their offerings, ranging from chocolate to online food ordering.
For the competition, the chefs were under orders to produce their tastiest dish using Florida Valencia oranges. This was a departure from the previous five events, when all the dishes had to use hot sauce, said LocalShops1 founder Ester Venouziou. Using oranges instead of hot sauce allowed chefs to participate in two different categories – savory and sweet – instead of just one.
“We wanted to go with something Florida and easily available,” Venouziou said. “I’m not sure what we will do next year.” LocalShops1 helps promote small local businesses throughout the Tampa Bay area.
LeAnn and Joseph Jackson said they were delighted to add the Top Local Chef prize to the resume of their rapidly expanding company, which is only a year and a half old. They have already outgrown their original shared kitchen and are soon moving into their own cooking space with a retail store. They expect their sales to double when their cheesecakes go on sale at Tampa International Airport next month.
The company’s signature container is a six-ounce glass jar in which the cheesecakes, which come in many flavors besides the one designed specifically for the contest, are cooked, stored and transported. The couple was forced to innovate when they found half their cheesecakes were melting in Florida’s heat before they could sell them, Joseph explained. “The cold glass actually insulates it for two hours,” he said.
The original cheesecake recipe came from LeAnn’s grandmother and was passed down through several generations. Five relatives were on hand Sunday to watch the couple’s victory.
“They’re both amazing people,” said Joseph’s mother, Cathy Jackson. “They work very hard and they deserve every bit of it.”
Updated 5/3/16: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of competitors in each category; the people’s choice and judge’s choice winners were also reversed. The Gabber regrets the error.