In her Kihei, Maui, kitchen, Kristine Snyder holds the chef-shaped trophy she won at the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger contest and two chickens she used to decorate her entry in the National Chicken Cooking Contest.

Cook-off champion

Maui's Kristine Snyder
finds success on the national
recipe contest circuit

KIHEI, MAUI >> In the world of high-stakes cookery, the triple crown of competitions is thus: the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the National Chicken Cooking Contest, the National Beef Cook-Off.

Kristine Snyder was a finalist at Pillsbury, she won top prize at the chicken contest and is on her way next month to National Beef. In a mere three years on the circuit she's won $48,000 in prize money, not to mention new appliances, cookware, trips and hundreds of dollars in gift certificates.

It's not quite a second career, so Snyder's holding on to her day job as a harpist at weddings on Maui. It is, though, much more than a hobby, this pursuit of cook-off glory, hovering somewhere between avocation and obsession.

"Just the idea that you can get something, even a $100 gift certificate," Snyder says, in attempting to rationalize the addiction she shares with the nation's dedicated contest-enterers. "But it's not even that, it's getting to WIN."

Snyder started off small, taking first prize in a church chili contest. Her entry was a "white" chili using chicken, white beans, sour cream and white cheese. This was in June 1988, not long after she and husband Dan moved to Kihei from Seattle.

The next month she aced the Maui Onion Festival's recipe contest. It was a feat she repeated three times, until contest organizers politely asked her to judge rather than compete.

By then, she'd gone national, anyway. The 2000 Pillsbury Bake-Off was her first stab at a contest outside Hawaii, and she was selected as a finalist in the category of Easy Weeknight Meals.

Now, understand the scope of this accomplishment: The bake-off, with its $1 million top prize, draws thousands upon thousands of entries, with some hopefuls entering for decades and never breaking in. Snyder did it in her first try.

Her Fiesta Shrimp Tacos didn't win, but did fetch a $2,000 finalist's prize, a new range, a set of knives and a trip to San Francisco for the cook-off.

Snyder's first big score came the next year. The Sutter Home Build a Better Burger contest, sponsored by the Napa Valley, Calif., winery, doesn't have quite the prestige of the Top 3 national cook-offs, but it's up there, especially in terms of prize money. In 2001, Snyder's Soy-Glazed Salmon Burgers won the $20,000 grand prize.

"I got more mentally obsessed after winning Sutter Home," she says.

At first it was fun just to travel to Napa for the cook-off and to be wined and dined as a finalist. "Then when you win, you go, 'That was better fun.' "

The major contests run in two-year cycles, so it wasn't until this year that Snyder got her next shot, at National Chicken. She submitted five recipes, hoping to be among 51 finalists called to Baltimore for the cook-off in May.

Shades of her obsession were in evidence: Finalists were supposed to be notified by the end of 2002. No word came until about a week into the new year.

"I'd already decided I didn't make it," she says

"And believe me, she was nasty," husband Dan interjects.

"I was not. I was sad."

It was a sadness short-lived, though. Her Pacific Rim Chicken Burgers -- a take on her winning salmon burger -- won first prize of $26,000.

Kristine Snyder, third from left, received a royal greeting upon her return to Maui after winning the $26,000 first prize in the National Chicken Cooking Contest.

With that win, Snyder earned her place in the world of the "contesters," says Amy Sutherland, author of "Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America," a Viking publication due out in October.

"National Chicken -- that's huge bragging rights, that's like going down in the history books," Sutherland says. "People kill to get into National Chicken. They enter year after year."

Sutherland's study of cook-offs basically parallels Snyder's time in national competition. Both were initiated at the 2000 Pillsbury Bake-Off, which Sutherland covered for her Portland, Maine, newspaper, the Press Herald.

For all her success, Snyder is a newcomer to this game. Sutherland has identified some legends. Pat Harmon of Pennsylvania, for example, enters a contest every week, no matter how small the prize. ("Pat would enter a sauerkraut competition where all she's going to get is a box of sauerkraut.") Or Roxanne Chan of Albany, Calif., who at last count has won 450 prizes since she started competing in the early '80s. Or Ella Rita Helfrich of Houston, who won $5,000 in the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off for her Tunnel of Fudge Cake, a bundt cake with a liquid core that remains the contest's most requested recipe and which brought the bundt pan into the American mainstream.

The dedicated contester, Sutherland says, is a creative, energetic, competitive woman (men generally enter only grilling or chili contests; otherwise the field is female). "They take an everyday task and they make the most of it ... and then they make it into a way to earn money."

Snyder says her process for developing competitive recipes involves a time of reflection. "I think about them for about a month."

Recipe testing involves whole days in the kitchen working on several dishes at a time. All ingredients go on a charge card and are claimed as deductions on her income tax (after all, she pays taxes on all winnings, even when it's just a gift basket).

Her husband enters the picture at tasting time. "When she's contesting she shows up with four or five items a night," Dan says.

"I've become brutally honest. If I don't like it, I'll say so."

Snyder says she'll enter four or five recipes per contest, which is typical of veterans. She says she knows one woman who entered 80 at one time.

Her dish of the moment is an Asian-style soup -- Ginger Beef & Noodle Bowls -- developed for National Beef (her recipe follows). As a regional finalist she'll be headed to Fort Worth, Texas, next month to compete for the $50,000 top prize.

Even with the best recipe in hand, though, contestants can be tripped up by circumstances at a cook-off, Snyder says.

She cut herself several times on extra sharp knives provided at the Pillsbury Bake-Off. "They had to send first aid over twice."

At National Chicken, she thought her burgers were burning and frantically tried to cover them when a Food Network crew showed up.

At the Better Burger contest, Snyder's station was set upon by bees. "It was like watching Lucille Ball," Sutherland says. "She was dropping stuff, she was swatting at bees with her cutting board, she didn't look like a winner. But her recipe really stood out."

Winning is a matter of skill, but also largely of luck, Snyder says. The odds are better than the lottery, "but it's still a crap shoot."

Ginger Beef & Noodle Bowls
Kristine Snyder

1 pound beef shoulder top blade (flatiron) steaks or 1 beef top round steak, cut 3/4 inch thick
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
2 tablespoons minced ginger
2 large cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 (14-ounce) cans beef broth
2 tablespoons mirin or rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
6 cups cooked Asian-style thin-cut noodles or unseasoned instant ramen noodles
1/2 cup matchstick-style shredded carrots

Cut steaks crosswise into 1/4-inch strips; cut strips in half.

Heat 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add ginger and garlic; cook 1 minute. Add 1/2 of beef; stir-fry 2 minutes or until outside is no longer pink. Remove from skillet. Repeat with remaining oil and beef. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

Add broth, mirin and green onions to skillet; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; simmer 8 to 10 minutes.

Divide noodles and beef evenly among 4 large bowls.

Return broth mixture to a boil, then ladle evenly over beef and noodles. Garnish with carrots. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving, using top blade: 665 calories, 19 g fat, 750 mg sodium, 202 mg cholesterol, 37 g protein, 72 g carbohydrate. Using top round: 643 calories, 13 g fat, 754 mg sodium, 202 mg cholesterol, 44 g protein, 72 g carbohydrate.


The triple crown

If you've been bitten by the bake-off bug, here are the basics on the Top 3 national contests:

Pillsbury Bake-Off

History: First held in 1949 in New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to celebrate Pillsbury's 80th birthday.
Top prize: $1 million
Next competition: June 26 to 29, 2004, in Hollywood, Calif. Guidelines available in December; deadline is in March 2004.
Winning recipes: Available on the Web site, or look for the annual bake-off edition of the Pillsbury Classic Cookbook on newsstands just after the competition.

National Beef Cook-Off

History: First held in 1974 with an $800 prize. Sponsored by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Top prize: $50,000
Next competition: Sept. 26 to 27 in Fort Worth, Texas. Information on the 2005 contest will be available in January 2005.
Winning recipes: Available free. Send self-addressed, stamped envelope to: National Beef Cook-Off, Prize Winning Recipes, ANCW, P.O. Box 3881, Englewood, CO 80155.

National Chicken Contest

History: First held in 1949 at a poultry festival in Maryland. Sponsored by the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.
Top prize: $25,000
Next competition: Spring 2005 at a location to be announced. Entries will be accepted beginning in January 2004.
Winning recipes: Send $2.95 to "Chicken Cookbook," Dept. NCC, Box 307W, Coventry, CT 06238

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