Leah Lyon has a secret – and she’s not talking.
Lyon, the project director of two federal grants at East Central University and an ECU graduate, could be the winner of another national cooking contest, the Cacique Go Autentico Recipe Contest. If so, she wins a week-long trip for two to Napa Valley and a five-day Culinary Institute of America Boot Camp vacation – or a mere $5,000 in cash.
She knows who the winner is but can’t tell before it is announced on the Cooking Channel this Saturday [FEB. 5]. Cacique Cheese, the largest fresh cheese maker in the United States, sponsored the contest and will announce the winner through a series of six vignettes about Lyon and the three other finalists. A spokesman for the company said the vignettes should begin airing at 1 p.m. local time.
Meanwhile, Lyon, who had won her category three times in the biennial Oklahoma Beef Cookoff, took the $1,000 grand prize for the first time on Jan. 22 for her Steak Florentine Orzo with Warm Bacon-Tomato Vinaigrette.
Leah Lyon (right) and her daughter Dawsyn offer their Ginger Snappin’ Turtle Cookies to a “judge” at the 2008 Airbake Extreme Cookie Challenge, a parent/child competition judged by the public at the FAO Schwartz Toy Store in New York City. They won a $1,000 savings bond. Lyon is one of four finalists in the Cacique Go Autentico Recipe Contest which will announce its winner Saturday on national television.
She has been a serious competitor for about nine years and enters between 50 and 60 contests each year. So far, she’s won close to $75,000 in cash, prizes and trips.
She entered the Cacique cheese contest practically at the last minute. With little spare time, she had wavered on whether to enter at all. Then she realized she could put together an appetizer using the company’s panela cheese which she frequently uses.
“I had fried some of that cheese (earlier) for a softball dinner for my daughter,” Lyon said. “I realized I could just cut it really thin and enter that. I had made fried cheese with shrimp salsa and everyone said it was good.”
So on the night of the deadline, she sat down with her laptop while watching TV and, using parts of things she had made before, typed up and submitted a recipe for Shrimp Rajas Al Carbon Panela Tostaditos.
She heard nothing from contest officials for a few weeks.
“Aw, man,” she thought, “I’ll bet the finalists have been announced. Well, chalk up another one not winning.”
Late in the day before Thanksgiving, on the way to her sister’s house in Texas, she got the call that she was one of four finalists.
“I just started squealing,” she said.
She and her husband Bryan, the director of youth services for the Chickasaw Nation, flew to New York City on Dec. 6. The finalists prepared their dishes at 4 p.m. Dec. 7 at chef Aaron Sanchez’s restaurant, Centrico. Sanchez, a judge on the Food Network show “Chopped,” was one of four judges for this competition.
The finalists weren’t told who won, though. Instead, they had to be back at the restaurant early on Dec. 8 – at 2:30 a.m. – to recreate their dishes for a film crew and tape vignettes and Cacique product endorsements for national television.
“After we cooked on Dec. 7,” Lyon said, “they told us to go to bed because we had to be at the filming at 2:30 a.m. My husband had bought tickets to the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular. We went to that and ate at Bobby Flay’s restaurant. I slept for an hour, then went to the filming.”
A cooking crew did most of the food preparations for the finalists and a culinary director handled the taping. They were told who won the contest before they left at 4:30 a.m.
“I had a blast. I really did,” Lyon said. “It’s so interesting to know how things are done (on cooking shows).”
After the taping she and her husband shopped, went to Little Italy and back to Rockefeller Center.
“We tried to pack it all in,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll sleep when I get home.’”
Lyon said she wins contests with desserts, quick-and-easy recipes and other types of dishes. Sometimes her family gets “sick of it” when she’s preparing for a cookoff.
“Maybe my specialty is appetizers,” she said. “I like a little gourmet, international foods, spicy stuff. ‘Spicy’ is my trademark.”
People want more spice in their food and are willing to try more things, she said. She uses a lot of chili peppers in her recipes. In fact, 90 percent of her dishes use poblano chilis, peaches, bacon, basil, avocado or corn.
Lyon is always searching for new things to try. She looks for trends and what high-end restaurants are serving. Eventually they will trickle down to other restaurants and home cooks.
“It’s a really fun hobby,” she said. “It really is not an easy hobby. It seems easy at face value, but it’s not. Sometimes the win is not in a prize. It may be a recipe you use forever. You make a lot of really good friends, and it keeps my mind creative.I use a part of my mind I don’t use at work. I get to exercise my mind and stay creative.”
Still, she admits, she sometimes has a problem figuring out what to cook for dinner.
“For me, it’s whatever sounds good,” she said. “Sometimes, nothing sounds good. That may be because I cook all the time.
“My husband would be happy with a hamburger and my daughters with pasta.”
The largest prize she has won, in addition to cash and trips to California, Florida, Tennessee, Disneyworld, Disneyland, Pittsburgh, San Antonio and her first trip to New York, was a $25,000 KitchenAid kitchen makeover.
The Lyons decided to remodel and add on to their outgrown house while gutting their kitchen and small dining area to create a larger kitchen.
“It’s awesome, if I do say so myself,” she smiled. “It has a custom island, new cabinets, stainless steel appliances. But it stays dirty a lot. I have to work really hard for it to look like a kitchen in a magazine.”
Lyon said she goes to the grocery store more often than she should. She’s always missing some ingredient, but that may be because her daughters also cook. She has four daughters, Desiree, 19, an ECU student majoring in biology/pre-medicine; Devin, 17, a student at Latta; Dominique, 14, a student at Byng; and Dawsyn, 10, a student at Homer.
“I try to have them cook one evening a week,” Lyon said. “The 14-year-old is just starting. I want them to understand what it takes to put a dinner together. I may drop them off at the store to shop for their dinner. I want them to understand how much a meal costs to prepare.”
Her husband likes to smoke ribs, chicken and turkey and they enjoy having people over for dinner.
She credits her parents for her love of cooking and trying new things. Her mother encouraged her daughters to cook, and Lyon helped her from the time she was a small child.
“My dad used to like really adventurous foods. My mother is from Alabama. We know how to cook southern,” she said. “Over the years we all developed our own specialties.”
Today, Lyon and her sister, Mary Shivers, frequently enter the same contests. They’ve never competed “live,” however.
Lyon grew up in Stratford and her husband is from Sasakwa. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration/marketing and a master’s degree in secondary education/educational technology, both from ECU. Bryan Lyon also is an ECU graduate. He received a bachelor’s degree in education and a master of education degree in secondary education/sports administration and is working on a master of education degree in secondary education/school principal.
At ECU she is the project director of two grants. The Regional University System of Oklahoma – Violence Prevention Project grant oversees individual campus violence prevention programs at ECU and the other five regional universities.
The Campus Law Enforcement Technical Assistance Program provides technical assistance to more than 100 Office on Violence Against Women campus grant programs across the United States in the field of campus law enforcement training and collaboration.
Lyon previously was an elementary school computer teacher and a project accountant for the Environmental Protection Agency contract at the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Laboratory in Ada.
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