It's probably safe to say that Devon Delaney will never need to buy another apron.
For that matter, the Westport woman probably won't ever need to buy another piece of cooking equipment, either. That's because Delaney seems to know the secret ingredient when it comes to winning culinary contests. She started entering cooking competitions more than a decade ago, and now enters them on a regular basis.
"I took up this hobby when the kids were really little," she said. "We were living in New Jersey and we had a very bad winter and I got a little housebound." At the grocery store one day, she scooped up a bunch of women's magazines and found a contest in one. "It was a `What can you do with a piece of bread?' contest," she said. "I made French toast fingers with a dipping sauce." She entered the contest, but then after a few weeks, forgot all about it. She was surprised when, one day, she received a letter saying that she had won $2,000.
"I thought, `I like this,' " she said, and thus began her foray into the world of competitive recipe making. She's made everything from appetizers to desserts. "I look at it as a challenge," she said. Delaney has no professional cooking experience (most contests require that you're not involved in anything food-related), and she said her parents weren't necessarily the best cooks. "We were pretty much on our own in the kitchen, which turned out to be a plus," she said.
For Delaney, the process is not just about whipping up a delicious recipe. She takes the challenge seriously and does her research beforehand. Contest sponsors "love recipe titles," she said. "You can't just call it Aunt Susie's Fried Flamingos." Delaney looks to see what the previous year's winners were, and uses that as a guideline.
This past weekend she qualified as a finalist in the Macy's Great American Grilling Guru contest. She cooked her recipe in front of a live crowd and was judged by professional chefs, including Todd English. "The Macy's contest was very patriotic," she said, so she named her recipe Sea to Shining Sea Crab Sliders with Firecracker Chow Chow and Avocado Tartar Cream. Some of her other award-winning recipes include Snappy Joe's on Texas Toast for Pillsbury, Chipotle Pork and Sweet Potato Posole for the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission and, most recently, African ground nut chicken stew for Tyson Foods.
Another secret she discovered is that the recipes need to be clear and can't be overly wordy. "There are some bad recipes," she said. "They either have very obscure ingredients, or they take too long. I know I can't be in the kitchen for four hours."
She said that often, people overthink their recipe ideas. "I don't think I have to really get nuts," she said. "I take an idea and make it easier for the home cook or do a variation on something. The companies want the recipe to be concise enough to print on the back of a jar or a box."
Delaney's biggest win was -- get this -- $40,000 for a Grilled Steak Bruschetta Salad that she concocted for a Better Homes & Gardens contest. Clearly that recipe was amazing, because she then entered a lightened-up version called Ranch Steak Bruschetta Salad in a Cooking Light contest, where she won $20,000.
But it's not just money that she's won.
"In our old house, I won every major appliance," she said. "The dishwasher, the oven, I had three outdoor grills." She's also won plenty of trips, including three Disney vacations when her children were young, and a gourmet dinner for eight prepared in her home by a chef from New York. "I probably have 75 aprons," she laughed.
Patti Woods is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.
Here's Devon Delaney's grand prize-winning recipe from the Better Homes & Gardens "Your Best Recipe" contest:
Grilled Steak Bruschetta Salad
Start to finish: 35 minutes
1/4 cup apricot preserves
1/4 cup prepared horseradish
1/4 cup creamy Dijon-style mustard blend
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 6-ounce beef tenderloin steaks, cut 1-inch thick
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
12 1/4-inch-thick slices baguette-style French bread
4 cups arugula
1/4 cup bottled roasted red sweet peppers, chopped
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1. Snip any large apricot pieces in the preserves. For dressing, in a small bowl combine preserves, horseradish, mustard blend and lemon juice. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
2. Sprinkle beef on both sides with salt and pepper. For a charcoal grill, grill steaks on the rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium coals until desired doneness, turning once halfway through grilling. Allow 10 to 12 minutes for medium-rare doneness (145 degrees F) or 12 to 15 minutes for medium doneness (160 degrees F). Place bread slices on grill rack with steaks for the last 2 to 3 minutes of grilling or until bread is lightly toasted, turning once. (For a gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Place steaks on grill rack over heat. Cover and grill as above, adding bread slices as directed.)
3. Divide arugula among 4 serving plates. Top with grilled bread slices. Drizzle with dressing. Thinly slice grilled steak; arrange atop bread. Sprinkle with red peppers and blue cheese. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.