You are what you eat, as the saying goes, or in the case of Debbie Vanni of Libertyville, Illinois, you are what you cook, and that makes her a winner.
Debbie is a seasoned virtuoso in the world of competitive cooking. She figures she’s won more than $100,000 in cash and prizes over the past 25 years. When she started out grand prizes were in the $5000 range. There was no $100,000 Sutter Home Burger Contest or $1 million Pillsbury Bake-Off. “It’s just in the past seven to eight years that the prize money has sky rocketed,” she explains.
Debbie’s husband and two daughters accompanied her whenever she made it to the finals, turning the contests into family vacations. “The sponsors paid for everything: food, entertainment, meals, taxis, everything. All of our family vacations for the past 25 years have been from contests."
Debbie’s daughter Kristina remembers, “mom’s first time at the Pillsbury’s Bake-Off was at the Waldorf. The Waldorf! And we stayed at the Sherry Netherland in New York when Mom was in the finals of the Hunt’s Spaghetti Contest.” Since Debbie was a substitute teacher and nutrition counselor, and her husband was self-employed, “the extra money and free vacations made life a lot nicer. It was essentially another income,” says Debbie. “Besides, I always loved to cook. “
Loving to cook is the only prerequisite for entering a contest. You can find one you like on the mother lode of all contest sites, cookingcontestcentral.com, and submit a recipe using the specified product. The trick is to take the assigned ingredient and put your own spin on it. The sponsors pick recipes that look promising, test them to see if they work, and do some research to make sure that "Grandma’s Butter Cookie" recipe didn’t accidentally originate in a 1940s cookbook that everyone forgot about.
Emboldened after winning her first big prize, an Oster brand Kitchen Center, Debbie started competing in Chicago’s Lake County Fair, winning so often that she was politely asked to stop entering. Just as politely, she was asked to be a judge. Like mother, like daughter, Kristina started competing in the Fair’s junior division as an eight-year-old, sweeping her categories, too.
Kristina made it to the Holy Grail of cooking contests, the Pillsbury Bake-Off, in 1992 when she was just twelve. Debbie’s mother, Pat Bradley, made it to the finals that year also, making them the first granddaughter and grandmother ever to compete against each other. Neither took home the grand-prize, but Grandma Pat got $10,000 and Kristina won $2,000. Kristina’s sister, Kara, just missed making it to the Pillsbury finals this year.
Kristina continues to bring home the bacon today. Last week she became “America’s Next Pork Personality” by winning the National Pork Board’s Live Grill-Off, in New York City. Her inventive Spicy Asian Pork Tenderloin with Pear-Caraway Mashed Potatoes and Grilled Baby Bok Choy got her the title and $5000.
Kristina also took home $10,000 in September in the National Beef Cook-Off with her southwest-inspired Orange-Chipotle Skirt Steak, an adobo, orange and cumin-marinated steak served with an orange, tomatillo, chipotle and onion salsa. She won the National Restaurant Association’s Hot Chef Grilling Challenge, and placed in the Betty Crocker Cookie Contest with Chocolate-Marshmallow Pillows. For the winning recipe, she added pecans to Betty’s Double Chocolate Chunk Cookie Mix, topped the fresh-out-of-the-oven cookie with a marshmallow, and then dipped it in melted chocolate. “I got only $500 but it’s one of my favorite recipes ever,“ she says. Her recipes can be found at Kristinathebudgetdiva.com.
Mother and daughter have favorites that didn’t win. While Kristina’s Smoky Southwestern Shepard’s Pie earned her a second trip to the Pillsbury finals, and graces the cover of the 39th Pillsbury Bake-Off Cookbook, it didn’t get the $1 million dollar prize.
Debbie’s Grilled Flank Steak with Fruit Salsa lost at the National Beef Cook-Off, but was served at the awards dinner the next year, “so someone must have liked it,” she laughs. She feels that her Apricot Glazed Chicken with Golden Raisin, Orange and Green Onion Rice Pilaf for the Chicken Contest didn’t get its just desserts. “Ahead of its time,” she says. Her Baklava Bars placed, but didn’t win Betty Crocker. They remain her favorite recipe.
These days, Debbie only enters a contest if the product, prize and location interest her. Some contests want you to submit a video as well as a recipe. “I don’t do that, but Kristina does, and she’s good at it.”
The Vannis say the love of cooking which has been passed down through the generations has made them closer as a family. “We’re all creative people in my family. We love the challenge. ‘How can I do it differently? Better? What’s on people’s palates right now? How can I adapt new tastes for an American palate?’” says Kristina.
And yes, the money comes in handy, but you do have to pay taxes on your winnings. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving, “ Kristina jokes. “But it’s worth it. You just adjust your budget.”
And don’t despair if you don’t cook like a Vanni. Some contests are more about glory than food. You didn’t have to submit a recipe in the recent Mrs. Butterworth’s First Name contest, you just had to guess Mrs. Butterworth’s first name. If you wrote ‘Joy,’ you’d be $500 richer right now, and the lucky recipient of a year’s supply of syrup.