How our family’s lockdown cooking competition ended up raising more than $100K for charities

This First Person article is the experience of Rima Hamadi, aa CBC producer in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It started off as a way to pass the time. My older brother and I had moved back to our family home in Mississauga, Ont., with our parents and younger brother, after more than a decade of living apart.

Until then, I had been living alone in Toronto and was getting really lonely. My brothers, Adonis, 31, and Rami, 28, were living with my parents and so I had decided to join them.

It was near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ontario was in lockdown and social interactions were limited to within households. We were stuck at home, bored, and trying to come up with ways to entertain ourselves.

One night, after watching the cooking show MasterChef on TV, we got into a discussion about who was the better cook: Adonis or me? I said I was because I had some experience in the kitchen. Meanwhile Adonis, despite having never made a meal from scratch, seemed to believe his culinary skills were superior. My younger brother, Rami, said there was only one way to find out: have our own cooking competition that Sunday night.

The rules were simple. Adonis and I would each cook a meal featuring a specific ingredient or theme, just like on MasterChef. Then Rami, my mom and my dad would judge. The winner would have bragging rights and wouldn’t have to do the dishes.

What we never expected was how it would end: with thousands watching us cook, my parents being recognized in the grocery store, and a community raising more than $100,000 for two different charities.

game on

The theme of Sunday night’s cooking competition was chicken. I chose a recipe I had cooked once before: a balsamic-glazed chicken stuffed with goat cheese with a simple salad. My brother found his recipe from him online: a mushroom and tomato sauteed chicken with a Greek salad.

“Your chicken was awesome,” said Joe Hamadi, my dad and head judge. And Adonis’ dish? “It was dry… it wasn’t good at all.”

My mom, Samar, was more diplomatic, which is how she earned her nickname “the Swiss judge.”

“Well, you have to take into consideration it was his first time doing this dish… like, it was edible,” she said.

I was triumphant and crowned the cooking master. But I would soon have to defend my title.

Rami had posted videos of the event on Snapchat and Instagram. Friends and acquaintances started reaching out, asking when the next episode would be. With Adonis eager to get even, and our family locked inside, the competition became a weekly event.

One of us would do the shopping (usually Adonis). Then come Sunday, we divided up the kitchen as best we could and got to work, music blaring and trash talk flying.

For week two of our competition, Adonis made a pasta with red sauce, left and I made a lemon pasta. (Rami Hamadi)

I made a lemon paste that won unanimously one week. Adonis made a lobster risotto that won another. We made vegan dishes, burgers, pad thai and eggplant lasagna. As time passed, we became more and more ambitious.

“I know things started escalating and getting more intense as the episodes went on,” Adonis said. “I’d check multiple recipes and ask people who had already cooked the recipes.”

I started to get so nervous for Sundays that I would stay awake the night before, visualizing recipes.

Week three saw Adonis’ first win and my first loss. I was devastated but also determined not to let it happen again. (Rami Hamadi)

Meanwhile, Rami, who was producing the videos, started getting messages from people he didn’t even know.

“They were saying that, ‘I love this,’ ‘I want to come be a guest judge,’ ‘I want to give my input.'”

Our competition had gone from something we we were doing to pass the time, to something others were using to pass the time during lockdown. Every Sunday, our videos would get close to 1,000 views.

For week five of our competition, Adonis made a pad thai, left, and I made a honey-garlic sesame chicken with fresh noodle rolls on the side. (Rami Hamadi)

The start of something more

We were starting to plan for our ninth episode when news broke of George Floyd’s death. As Sunday came around, my brothers and I did a group huddle and chose to skip the competition that week.

“It just didn’t feel right to do,” said Adonis.

But people continued to message us, asking where our weekly videos were. So Rami came up with an idea: we would compete the following week, but also help our community.

We started a GoFundMe and asked our followers to donate, promising to match the donations. We would give it to the Black Legal Action Center (BLAC), a not-for-profit community legal clinic that combats individual and systemic anti-Black racism, and provides legal services to members of Ontario’s Black communities.

“We got immediate support and messages, kind of really happy that we were doing our part,” said Rami Hamadi.

We ended up raising more than $2,500 because of our viewers. After matching it, we sent $5,010 to BLAC.

Our family decided to make a GoFundMe for our fans and match any donations that came in. The money went to the Black Legal Action Centre. (Hamadi Rhyme)

the end

Going into week 11, Adonis and I were tied at five wins a piece. With one final event, the winner would take all.

“I was extremely excited just to finally pick a winner,” Rami said. “It brought me a lot of joy to see you and Adonis stressing on that last day. Maybe it’s the sibling in me, but it was really fun.”

The theme was dessert. I made chocolate lava cake three ways, while Adonis made a tiramisu and a chocolate fondue fountain with fruit to dip.

After a long deliberation, the judges delivered their verdict: a split decision, coming down to head judge, Joe.

I am proud to say that I was declared the overall winner. When Joe announced it, I screamed so hard I lost my voice!

WATCH: The grand finale of the Hamadi family’s cooking competition

The Hamadi family cooking competition Grand Finale: Desserts

The Hamadi family, looking for an activity during lockdown, held home cooking competitions and posted videos of it online. Fans loved the rivalry between siblings Rima and Adonis Hamadi, and parents/judges Samar and Joe became minor celebrities. 2:49

But even though it was over, the community we had built online remained. A month later, we would be calling on them again.

The aftermath

On August 4, 2020, there was a massive explosion in the port of Beirut. This hit close to home for us, as both my parents are from Lebanon.

After ensuring our loved ones were safe, we met as a family and started brainstorming ways to help. Recalling the fundraiser for BLAC, my dad suggested we do something similar for the Lebanese Red Cross, though this time there would be no cooking competition to go with the call out. We created a GoFundMe and told people in our community. We again promised to match donations, thinking it would motivate people to give. What we didn’t know was just how motivated people would be.

“The reaction was overwhelming. Like, it was insane how many people donated,” Adonis said.

We kept refreshing the GoFundMe page and calling each other, both excited and overwhelmed. It meant so much for us to be helping people in Beirut, but also that people in our community were donating and sharing the fundraiser.

In 20 hours, we reached $100,000, and decided to stop accepting donations. We directed people to give directly to the Lebanese Red Cross.

“We closed the fundraiser because we had to match this,” my mom, Samar, said.

It was a commitment we honoured, sending a total of $200,000 to the charity.

Because our earlier GoFundMe was so successful, we decided to create another donation page to help people in Beirut after the explosion. (Hamadi Rhyme)

Our Hamadi family cooking competition had started small: as a way to fill some empty hours during lockdown and to settle a score over who was the better cook, Adonis or me. (For the record, it’s me!)

But it ended up being so much more than that. We discovered a community, and together we were able to help people when they needed it most. It is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

And I’m never going to let Adonis forget it, either!

About the Producer

rhyme hamadi is a writer and producer for CBC Toronto at 6 with Dwight Drummond. She started her journalism career at CBC Windsor six years ago as a reporter and producer. Rima enjoys putting a spotlight on voices from the Greater Toronto Area’s Lebanese/Arab community. One of her favorite moments of her career was producing the show when the Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship.

This documentary was produced with Alison Cook and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.

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