COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Jena Bricker is one lucky woman.
Her boyfriend, Ben Randolph, is one of five finalists picked from thousands of entrants in a nationwide contest to find America's best amateur griller.
"I know it sounds over the top, but I'd rather have him cook for me than go to any restaurant," Bricker said. "He's always trying something completely new."
Randolph spotted an ad for the May 19 contest, billed "Where Garden Meets the Grill," while reading a friend's copy of Gourmet magazine. He decided to enter the contest on a whim and said he created his recipe for "Grilled Ahi Tuna with Artichoke Rémoulade " in about half an hour.
If he wins the grand prize, he will stay in New York for seven nights and receive a five-day cooking class at the Institute of Culinary Education and dinners at seven of New York's best restaurants.
Randolph's culinary career began as a hobby six or seven years ago. He began dining out frequently, evaluating the food and trying to mimic the recipes at home. Eventually he felt he needed to expand his audience beyond his dining room, he said.
"I have a creative impulse of my own that I wanted to follow," he said. "You can only do so much at home -- then you need to move on to a bigger audience. A restaurant has more opportunities for expression and practice -- for trial and error."
He prefers to work in experimental restaurants with interesting ingredients. "If there's no learning going on, it's not really fun," he said.
Randolph's first cooking job was at Cherry Street Wine Cellar in Columbia, where he eventually became the chef. He is now the executive chef at Sterling Food Service, a company that does food service for fraternity and sorority houses.
He said he hopes someday to write a cookbook and open his own restaurant; he craves more creative control over the cuisine he prepares.
Randolph's job regularly spills out of the office. He cooks for his girlfriend several nights a week, and she said he's never made the same meal twice in the year that they've been dating.
"I guess I try to do things that are a little eclectic," Randolph said.
His only other competitive experience was in the 2003 Mid-West Iron Chef Challenge, an event sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He worked on the winning team headed by Peio Aramburo, the chef at a local restaurant.
Neither Randolph nor Bricker has ever been to New York, and they say the possibilities of exploring the city's restaurant scene excites both of them. During the finals, they will be staying at a hotel only few blocks from the Empire State Building, and they plan to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art and watch a ballet performance.
The second annual contest will be held in Bryant Park in New York City and is sponsored by Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Turning Leaf Vineyards and Epicurious.com. It will be judged by the Today Show's Al Roker and editors and chefs for the Food Network, Bon Appetit and Gourmet.