Elevating a lowly side dish like coleslaw to haute cuisine status is not for the run-of-the-mill cook—precisely what Roxanne Chan of Albany is not. As a recipe “contester” she spends her days dreaming up ways to make everything from chicken to potato salad in new and exciting ways.
Her recent entry in a coleslaw recipe contest featuring raspberries took third place and a $100 prize—just another day at the office for Chan. In the roughly 2,000 contests Chan has entered in the last 20 years, she’s racked up 580 prizes including a new French sedan, trips, cash prizes of up to $5,000, cook books and kitchen equipment—including six Cuisinearts.
“You can’t make a living. It’s only a hobby. I do it for the intellectual stimulation of creating, coming up with a great idea,” says Chan, who gets inspiration for recipes from the fruits, vegetables and herbs she grows in her spacious Albany hill garden.
The raspberry coleslaw was no exception. “We had raspberries in the garden and so that’s what clicked,” says Chan.
A stay-at-home mom with a sophomore at Albany High School, Chan caught the recipe contest bug after friends impressed with her dinner parties suggested she put her show on the road. Starting out small, she entered her creations in local contests like the San Francisco crab contest, the Walnut Creek walnut festival and the Gilroy garlic festival and started winning.
The prizes gave Chan a taste for the hobby and she began subscribing to newsletters touting the various national contests (these have since been replaced by the website www.recipecontests.com.)
Food contests fall into two categories: a recipe contest, where you submit a recipe through the mail, and cook-offs, where you go and attend a function, usually a food festival, and prepare your recipe to be judged on-site.
Chan especially enjoys the cook-offs which are usually held in the summer months. “That’s where you meet people—that’s part of the fun of the hobby too.” She stays away from the ubiquitous chili and barbecue cook-offs and is not much of a baker. Her emphasis is on salads and chicken dishes. “There’s lots of chicken contests out there cause you can do a lot with it and I’m more into that than into beef. I don’t do much beef.”
Because she consistently wins on the recipe “tour” Chan has become something of a legend in the annals of recipe contesting. The recently published “Cookoffs—Recipe Fever in America,” a book about the phenomenon, has a whole chapter devoted to Chan entitled simply “Roxanne.”
Chan attributes her fame in the field of contesting to her longevity more than anything else. “I keep on winning. There are contesters that win bigger prizes than I do more consistently, but I do win quite a bit.”
It’s no surprise to Chan that she won for her latest slaw entry. “Slaws are one of my big things. I’m known for my prize-winning slaws,” says Chan. “I just like to experiment with all different types of cabbages, fruits and vegetables.”
While that love of experimentation has won her awards, Chan is quick to point out that in order to be successful as a contester you have to know your audience.
What might work with Steinfeld’s, the sauerkraut company from Oregon that sponsored her raspberry slaw recipe, wouldn’t necessarily go over in the more conservative dining Midwest.
“This recipe might not fly in a national contest because it’s a little bit too California cuisiney,” says Chan. “I wouldn’t send this in to some national slaw contest. But, Oregon, Washington, California, out here you would do it. These are the types of things you pick up from experience.”
While you might not know Chan’s name at first glance, there’s a good chance you’ve tried one of her recipes. They’ve been published in conjunction with contests co-sponsored by Sunset and Bon Appetite magazine and have even appeared on food packages. A Ronzoni pasta package featured her salmon pasta dish, complete with her name, for years.
While Chan has five large photo albums stuffed with her winning recipes—enough for more than a few recipes books—she realizes that they are the property of the companies that sponsored the contests. For Chan to have them published under her name would require the company’s consent, but don’t look for that anytime soon. “Of course, I have enough to put together a book but I would probably only do it when I stopped contesting,” says Chan.