By day, Leslie Shearer is a business analyst with Lowes.com. Evenings and weekends, she analyzes ingredients to create the perfect recipe.
In July, one of her recipes was the ticket to Gilroy, Calif. The smell of garlic permeates the air in a town where restaurants along Gourmet Alley use four tons of the bulbs a year.
One of eight finalists in the 32nd Annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, Shearer won second place. She received $750 and a prestigious crown of garlic for her Potentially Pretentious Pork Tenderloin with Garlic Five Ways.
"I was floored over winning," said the amateur cook, who had never entered a recipe or cooking contest. Her interest in competing was piqued when she saw a profile of the festival on Food Network.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Creating an original recipe using six cloves of garlic to serve six people became a personal challenge. Just writing down the recipe and naming it was difficult.
"I just cook," said Shearer. From the 250 entries, judges narrowed the field to 50. After a judge prepared the recipes, eight finalists were selected.
Shearer received confirmation of her selection June 15. At that point, she began cooking the entrée in friends' homes and hosting dinner parties. Although she became tired of cooking the tenderloin, she never grew tired of eating it.
By July 24, Shearer could prepare the recipe in two hours. She was confident but nervous before judges announced the start time at 9:40 a.m.
Once the cook-off began, her nerves calmed, and she settled into a familiar routine. During down time, participants chatted as they worked.
In the end, The middle of the pork was too rare, but the ends were done, a lifesaver. Shearer pulled enough pork to fill plates. "It was close, but I finished," she said. "Judges were hovering over me as I plated and sprinkled fried garlic chips."
Entries were judged for taste, presentation, ease of preparation and creative use of garlic. In Potentially Pretentious Pork Tenderloin, garlic is infused into grits, roasted, fried as chips and infused into a salad dressing for arugula. Minced garlic is rubbed on the outside of the pork.
Shearer knew her food was good, but as she stood onstage, she thought someone else would win. After all, the other amateur competitors were veterans in the world of recipe contests and cook-offs. Suddenly Miss Garlic stopped walking behind contestants and placed a garlic crown on Shearer's head.
Her recipe was a winner. She had persevered through discovering partially frozen arugula in the motel refrigerator, dashing to Trader Joe's for more and switching workstations the day of competition because of an oven malfunction.
What's next? Shearer has researched other competitions, but she's afraid they may be a letdown since she won on her first try.
She's exempt from entering the Gilroy Festival until 2014. For now she wants to try soups.
"There are fun and creative flavors with soups," she said. "A roasted garlic cauliflower soup is in my future."
Several ideas are percolating for 2014. In the meantime, Shearer is thinking about an idea for an Ocean Spray Cranberry Cook-Off in 2011.