Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


July 29, 2012

Cookin' for the win

W.Va. woman creates winning recipe for contest

BECKLEY — —  Jeanette Nelson is finally reaping the seeds she’s sown in the early morning hours over the last three years of developing recipes. Know how excited chefs get when the payoff is $10,000 in television cook-offs? Amateur chef Nelson knows now.

Her June 24 arena at The Grove in Los Angeles wasn’t televised, but the big check and her image with Brad Bartlett, president of DOLE Packaged Foods, and restaurateur and Celebrity Chef Ben Ford (son of Harrison Ford) are proof that her skill has surpassed its hobby phase.

It could have been by fluke (the phenomenon, not the fish), the first few contests she won. But when the kitchen merchandise, gift cards as high as $8,000 and product prizes began pouring in, it was obvious to Nelson, who studies ingredients and culinary techniques on the Internet as inspiration for her re-creatable creations, that this is what she should be doing.

“I get geared up to do more when I win,” says the seasoned competitor. “The $8,000 (in HealthPartners Yum Power Challenge, emceed by Chef Andrew Zimmern) was pretty close, but this is a win with cash — not in gift cards.”

The win has also been published across the nation, and flashed as a headline in Forbes and Yahoo Finance online.

Don’t underestimate the girlish grin. Behind it is a fierce challenger. She used to enter as many as 60 recipes into a single competition. That was back when she would enter just any old contest. Not these days. With each success, Nelson’s confidence and proficiency have grown.

“I focus more on quality now, not quantity.”

She has since become a discriminating contestant, entering the recipes she intends to liven family tables across America through only higher profile, higher grossing food challenges, some in the $100,000 and up to $1 million prize range.

Nelson’s winning Island Pork Sliders with Pineapple Jicama Salsa were chosen as best from among the three finalists by Chef Ford and his panel before a crowd of thousands, where she had 60 minutes to prepare her dish. She was unflappable when they also asked her to sing “Country Roads” before the Californians — consenting not once, but twice. Cabaret or country-western, singing is definitely absent from her future, but winning with more recipes is not.

Her Taste of Dole sliders recipe incorporates one of her favorite unsung pantry heroes — jicama. The crispy, sweet turnip-like root vegetable regularly appears to add texture and transparent crunch to her specialty slaws.

“Jicama is starchy, but light. To me, it’s between a cucumber and an apple. Honestly, you don’t know what jicama can do for your slaw or your burgers .”

As part of the Los Angeles competition, Nelson was paired up with her very own sous chef, Erika Kerekes, a Los Angeles food blogger who writes at and for the Examiner. Nelson credits Kerekes’ calm, cool, collectedness for helping her walk away with the title.

“She was a leader. If she saw me stressed, she was right behind me to help me out. She even cut my jicama!”

So far, her wins within a short timeframe of contesting have brought in $45,000 in cash and other prizes, including trips she’s taken with her family.

The inspiring stay-at-home mom strategizes new competitions she finds on the web and uses the same to study different techniques and flavor trends well before the kids wake up. It’s how she knew a year in advance that roasted ground ginger would be a hit, before the specially prepared spice took off in popularity.

“For me, if I can finish a recipe a day, I’m done. It usually takes me about an hour to research and create.”

What’s getting her excited right now are her entries into several major contests, a pending permanent move to Bridgeport for her husband Willie’s new job and ponzu sauce, a citrus-soy based ingredient popular in Japanese cooking.

“They’re coming out with a ponzu lime sauce,” she says, excitedly. It may just make its way into her short rib recipe for a Gnarly Head Wines contest, a dish she’s pairing with a zinfandel. Or maybe her mawmaw jaw-dropping Marvelous Mexicana potato salad starring none other than jicama in a potato-grower’s challenge will see Nelson through to her next big win.

“I like my contesting, I like staying an amateur. If the money’s right, maybe I’ll be a product spokesperson,” she expresses.

But for right now, only one thing’s for certain: This mountain mama knows her John Denver and how to write an amazing recipe.

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