Cookoff and contest queen Roxanne Chan keeps the culinary kudos coming.
Like a lot of time-honored American traditions, the recipe contest, and its kissing cousin, the cookoff, have gone through some changes with the democratization of contests brought on by TV shows like American Idol. In days of yore, tests of culinary prowess were judged entirely by culinary experts. Today it’s more likely not to be judged, but voted on by someone at home gnawing on a ham sandwich in his or her PJs. While this turn of events isn’t to champion Albany food contester Roxanne Chan’s liking, it hasn’t slowed her down. A force to be reckoned with on the food contest circuit, Chan has been competing since 1980 and has won tons of cool stuff, like a Peugeot sedan, scads of high-grade cookware, cold hard cash, culinary adventures, and the glory of having her recipe for salmon pasta, complete with her name, printed on a package of Ronzoni. Further proof of Chan’s dominance? In the book Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, there’s a whole chapter devoted to her, entitled simply, “Roxanne.” Looking for advice on perfecting my mutton demi-glace, I contacted Chan recently to kvetch about the current state of recipe/cook-off contesting. Too bad there wasn’t a video crew available, as it would have been must-see TV.
Paul Kilduff: It sounds like the world of food contesting has gone a little Hollywood and you are not amused.
Roxanne Chan: No. Well, you know, people that have done it and know what it was like 30 years ago, we don’t feel that that’s the way food should be judged. By voting. That sort of thing.
PK: But are you still competing?
RC: Yes, I am. I used to do 100 percent of all the co tests I found out about. Now, I probably do less than 50 percent of what’s out there, because I don’t do videos, and I don’t do anything that’s completely judged by voting.
PK: Maybe you need an agent to kind of give you a makeover?
RC: No, I’m just laid back. I’m not one of those Type A personalities, and I don’t like to be out front. So you know I wouldn’t go for that. To do videos is just not my style.
PK: So we’re not going to see Roxanne Chan competing on one of those reality show barbecue contests. That’s like a whole new genre of film.
RC: Oh, yeah. Barbecue cookoffs and the chili circuit. Some people only do that.
PK: Have you ever made chili?
RC: Oh, yes!
PK: But you don’t want to share the recipe?
RC: I’ve won a couple of small chili contests. I won once with an Asian-style chili. That California-type cooking wouldn’t go over. But some of the contests now? I mean, they might be amateurs, but they’re professional in their skill in that area for sure.
PK: You’ve won six Cuisinarts.
RC: Oh, yeah!
PK: Are they all in the garage?
RC: No, I’ve given them to family members for weddings, and, of course, lately I’ve given a lot of things to my son when he started his home. I only have one Kitchen Aide mixer left and a couple of Weber barbecues, one gas grill, and one charcoal.
PK: Despite the fact that you’ve had all these recipes published in Sunset Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and on food packages, they’re not your property, and so you can’t publish a book of them. Is that still the case?
RC: Yeah, unless you get permission from the company or the sponsor, which is hard to do a lot, because some of them have merged with others; some are no longer. So basically you’re right. Once you enter a contest, it’s in the rules. From the start, they state that the recipe belongs to them.
PK: Is it hard for you not to be able to take full credit for all the recipes you’ve developed?
RC: It doesn’t bother me because it’s the creative process. I’ll always have new ideas. I have a goal, and I’m getting close. I want to reach 1,000 award-winning recipes.
RC: And I’m at 980.
PK: Twenty more to go.
RC: Yeah. But I’m trying not to think too hard about it, because it gets harder to win.
PK: What are you working on now?
RC: Well, yesterday a new contest was announced with Sargento shredded cheese. Now here’s the thing: There’s one winner. And there’ll be probably around 1,000 entries. And so what are your chances? This is not by voting; this is by judging. With one winner. I mean, see, this is the thing. Some people wouldn’t even bother.
PK: Yeah, right. The odds don’t sound so great.
RC: They’re not great at all.
PK: Anything that you can reveal that you are thinking about for this contest?
RC: I’m tending Italian, so I’m thinking about a red and green and white combination of something.
PK: Viva Italia!
RC: And I haven’t decided whether it’s going to be an appetizer, since it’s wide open here. So that’s as far as I can tell.
PK: Is your husband the final arbiter on this? Does he give thumbs up or down after one bite?
RC: He usually doesn’t say that much. Once in awhile he’ll say, “Oh, this is good.” If he does that, then I pay attention.
PK: Do you sometimes not even tell him it’s for a contest?
PK: If you haven’t told him, and he looks up and says “good,” you might have a winner?
RC: Exactly. There’s a method in the madness here.
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Birthplace: Phelps, N.Y.
Astrological sign: Aquarius
Motto: “Variety and moderation. I’m not an extreme person.”
Times Chan has competed in the Pillsbury Bake-Off: Three, the limit for winning the $1 million prize, which she never won.