MARQUETTE - In downtown Las Vegas, in a kitchen gleaming with stainless steel surfaces and high-tech appliances, Brenda Washnock works to bring her recipe to life.
The clock is ticking for Washnock and her competitors at the second ever World Food Championships. They have an hour and a half to craft their most delectable pasta dish. Television cameras from the A&E network follow their every move, recording each commingling spice and capturing every ingredient carefully added to the mix, the footage to be later cut and spliced and scored, the final product a suspenseful six-week reality TV show.
Washnock's specialty is ethnic foods, and for her category - World Recipe Championship - she created an Indonesian pasta, "Sayuran dan pasta dengan saus kacang pedas dan daging" - vegetables and pasta with a spicy peanut sauce and beef flank.
Brenda Washnock sits with the other winners of the Duncan Hines 2013 Spring Bake Recipe Contest at the Pinnacle Foods/Duncan Hines facilities in Parsippany, N.J. (Photo courtesy Duncan Hines)
She didn't think she had a chance of placing in the top 10.
"Almost everyone in my category was a chef," she said. "There were, God, maybe three amateurs. There were bloggers, there were food celebrities out there, there were all these people out there. It was the coolest thing."
The winners were announced; Washnock took seventh. She was the only amateur in her category to place in the top 10.
"It was unbelievable," she said. "It was just unbelievable to be picked, and there's these cameras overhead ... and they're following me through this crowd of thousands and they're trying to identify who's coming up and it was just the coolest thing."
But Washnock wasn't finished. The next day those in the top 10 were assigned another pasta dish to cook - and this time it had to include bison.
"I didn't experiment with that (recipe) as much because I really didn't think there was a chance of being in the top 10," she said. Her dish, a Moroccan meal which included bison and couscous, moved her up to sixth place in her category.
A nurse by trade who now works as a "relocation consultant" - most recently she was tasked with helping Australian employees from Rio Tinto adjust to American life when the company owned the Eagle Mine - Washnock has always loved to cook. But she'd never created a recipe of her own. Her introduction to the culinary arts began right here in Marquette.
"I started with The Mining Journal Cook-Off," she said. "I had been trying to get into that for years and finally I got in, and once I had a win I had the confidence to look at other contests online."
Washnock began competing in a variety of food competitions.
"The more you do, the more confidence you get ... it's a lot of fun," she said.
She learned by email about a national competition to create a dessert recipe for Duncan Hines - a branch of Pinnacle Foods specializing in cake mixes, frostings and other goodies - and decided to enter.
The Duncan Hines 2013 Spring Bake Recipe Contest limited participants to seven ingredients, including one of their cake products as well as one of their "frosting creations." Washnock said that when eggs and cooking oil were necessarily added to the list, the limited remaining number of ingredients she could use made the competition "really challenging."
The result of her efforts was a recipe for chocolate mocha cupcakes with caramel and sea salt which placed her in the top 10 nationwide and won her the opportunity to travel to Parsippany, N.J. to spend a weekend at the Duncan Hines "test kitchen."
While there, Washnock was given a tour of the Pinnacle Foods/Duncan Hines facilities and watched Duncan Hines' Executive Chef Joe DiPaolo in action.
"It was just amazing," she said. "We spent a whole day - probably from 8 in the morning to 8 at night - watching him show us how to do things with sweets."
DiPaolo showed Washnock and the other winners how to create chocolate spaghetti and other chocolate decorations and they watched him spin sugar.
But it was her victory in another contest which won her the invitation to compete in the World Food Championships. Last summer, Washnock won the grand prize from the California Avocado Growers Association at its All American Recipe Contest for her Haitian black bean salsa.
With those honors came the invitation to Las Vegas for the Food Championships. Her sixth place finish there occurred only a couple weeks ago. Washnock said the competition was made for TV, and will be shown as a special on A&E over six weeks next spring.
Despite Washnock's success creating chocolate confections for Duncan Hines, ethnic foods like her Indonesian dish and her Haitian salsa remain her biggest passion. When she wants to create a dish, the origins of which can be traced to the other side of the world, she said she'll do research on that country and its foods to spark her creativity.
"Ideas come to you," she said. "I find out what spices are used in that area and what foods are indigenous to that area - and you always study the meat to make sure they actually have that meat there."
Washnock said it's important to her to keep the ingredients of any of her recipes appropriate for the region they come from.
For example, "if I were doing an Indian dish, I would never use cow," she said.
In fact, Washnock said the popularity of eating bison in Morocco and other parts of Africa led to her decision to create a Moroccan bison dish for the food championships.
"I love the African flavors anyway, and I knew that they used bison there," she said.
For the immediate future, Washnock continues to enter competitions, her biggest goal being to return to the food championships next year.
"I can't see anything being bigger than that World Food Championship," she said, though she's already got her eyes on an upcoming recipe competition for P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the grand prize winner of which will get to travel to Napa Valley in California.
"There's always something out there," she said. "It's a lot of fun."
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.