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Developing a taste for the win

Local home cook Merry Graham continues to whip up wins

Posted: November 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Merry Graham, winner of the Duncan Hines Sweet Stars, prepares the crust for her award winning chocolate crusted tart recipe on Wednesday. Photos by Charlie Kaijo

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The first time Merry Graham won a $10,000 check, she almost threw it out and kept on cooking.

Explaining that the cooking contest hosts were asking her to sign the check to claim it, Graham’s son saved her from her biggest kitchen blunder.

The Newhall resident cooked up her first win three years ago. Since then, Graham has competed in about 30 contests and garnered about $75,000 in cash winnings, Graham said.

Because of contests, Graham has travelled the world, met more than a baker’s dozen of home cooks, attended cooking classes with the best and toured test kitchens and food manufacturing plants around the country.

When asked if it’s shocking to see a $10,000 check appear in her mailbox, Graham replied: “Holy moly! Was it ever! You just keep pinching yourself and wondering, ‘How in the world did I do that?’”


Falling for food

Growing up, Graham didn’t do much of the cooking.

“I always watched my dad do the cooking and my mom do the cookies,” she said.

When she enrolled in an international cooking class in college, however, Graham first tasted the fruits of her labor.

“I made muenster bread. I kneaded the dough, filled it up with this lovely cheese,” she said, “and as soon as I pulled it out of the oven, something clicked: I knew I loved doing this.”

After Graham got married, she began volunteering at church, pulling from day-old boxes of food to whip up on-the-spot lunches for 40 people.

“In a sense, I was doing the show “Chopped” before it was a show,” she said. “I found great pleasure in watching people take that first bite of food.”

Graham continued to pursue pleased reactions and new recipes throughout her life, cooking for every potluck and bake sale she could lay personal claim to, as well as catering a couple weddings for friends.

“Food did not threaten me. I see it as an artistic outlet,” she said. “I tried everything from macromet to crochet to quilting, but somehow, creative cooking captured my heart.”

Growing up with a painter as a mother, Graham was thrilled to finally have found her blank canvas in an empty plate.

Cookin up contests

Three years ago, Graham entered her first cooking contest with Organic Green and Black Chocolate and found herself at the kitchen counter next to culinary “top dogs.”

“Mario, Giadda — they were all there,” she said.

Nearly by accident, she had hit the big time and wound up tipping glasses with the pros at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen.

“I was instantly hooked,” she said.

Once returning home, it was all Graham could do to drop her bags and start researching more contests.

Among the prizes Graham has won are a trip to Scotland, a $10,000 grocery card and $25,000 in cash from Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker.

Graham won the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Chocolate Adventure contest for her Margarita Moon Pies recipe. She bested nearly 1,500 other recipes to come out on top.

She also won the third annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest held at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

“Every year since I started, I have won a $10,000 check, except in 2013,” she said, pausing, “then I won a $25,000 check!”

Everyone has to make dinner or dessert occasionally, Graham said, so she uses the time to stir up some contest contenders.

“After you get a couple wins, you are just addicted,” she said.

The vying world champ of chow

Most recently, Graham competed in the 2013 World Food Championship in Las Vegas, plating a good ol’ American classic: the sandwich.

Regardless of the fare’s seeming simplicity, Graham hustled and bustled at “Top Chef” pace to doctor up the classic. Graham had 90 minutes for the first sandwich before she quickly spiffed up her kitchen for a second, 35-minute round.

“We were exhausted,” she said, “but you truck along until you make it.”

The first sandwich was coming along beautifully, she said, until she ran into a major problem.

She forgot two of her ingredients at home.

“I have to keep myself calm. I can get out of any mistake I might make,” she said.

While Graham usually competes with a more playful, creative mindset than a competitive, staunch determination, her characteristic calm was especially important this time.

Changing ingredients on the fly, Graham made it to the last 10 minutes: plating time.

“Plating is so stressful. The bun falls off. Crumbs bounce down. Everything has to be perfect, and food doesn’t like to be perfect all the time,” she said with a laugh.

But Graham sees the entire experience as an adventure.

Graham made it the second of three sandwich-making rounds, placing fourth overall in her category. Though she didn’t win this one, she has plenty more wins ahead of her.

“Cooking contests stretch me and push me and keep me engaged in cooking,” she said. “It revitalizes me and keeps me all charged up.”


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