After years of competitive cooking, Merry Graham of Newhall may just be ready to hang up her apron.
“I’m thinking of retiring from competitive cooking,” she said. “I am content with what I’ve accomplished in the cooking world and have other projects I am interested in pursuing.”
The Santa Clarita Valley’s most accomplished amateur chef estimates she has won more than $150,000 in cash and prizes during the past decade.
Graham started her competitive cooking career with an essay, not a recipe.
“I was looking through a magazine and I saw an opportunity to win a trip to the Aspen Food & Wine Festival,” she said. The contest was sponsored by Green & Black’s Organic Chocolate.
“I had to write a paragraph about how you live ‘green’ without spending too much money,” Graham said. As the child of a tile contractor Graham’s family made extensive use of broken and leftover tile. “I wrote a paragraph on all the things my family did with the tile and I won, she said.
Graham said the great experiences she had at the June 2009 Aspen Food & Wine Festival made her hungry for more culinary adventures. Graham said the “minute” she returned home she turned on her computer to research how to win other contests.
“I think it was before I even unpacked my suitcase. I did a Google search; food and wine festival, and up popped the world of competitive cooking, http://contestcook.com,” she said.
The first recipe contest Graham entered was the Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill’s Chile Fest Dessert contest, less than six months after returning from the 2009 Aspen Food & Wine Festival.
“It wasn’t a big prize, but it was huge for me,” Graham said. “I discovered how much fun it was to get into those hot kitchens and rub elbows with other competitive cooks. Then to be named the winner was really fun.”
In 2010, Graham continued her winning streak when she entered the Ocean Spray Ultimate Cranberry Recipe contest, and won $10,000.
“I was definitely hooked then,” she said.
Graham was born in San Jose to Patricia and Carl Ryser. Shortly after she was born, the family moved to Redding. Her father was a tile contractor with his own company, and her mother had a bachelor’s in art and a master’s in psychology. Graham was the fourth of five children, with one sister and three brothers.
A graduate of Shasta High School, she attended Shasta Community College; California State University, Chico; and California Polytechnic State University, Cal Poly with a bachelor’s degree in foods and nutrition.
Graham headed to college with the intention of becoming a nurse. “Then I discovered I didn’t really like chemistry all that much, and you had to take a lot of science classes,” she said.
Then, she discovered her passion for cooking in an international food cooking class. “We made a bread filled with Munster cheese,” she said. “It was one of the first times I ever kneaded dough. We stuffed the bread with this beautiful cheese and put it in the oven. When we took it out and broke it open, all this oozing cheese came out. I instantly became bonded with the joy and love of cooking. It really snagged me.”
At the end of her senior year of college, in 1976, Graham married Richard Graham. The couple recently celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary.
They moved to Santa Clara for a year where her husband, an electronics engineer, found work. A move to the Los Angeles area followed in 1977.
Graham has four children: David, Shiloh and twins Tiffany and Timothy.
“I stayed home with the babies, did a lot of volunteer work, and then started cooking,” she said.
Graham also home schooled all four of her children through high school. “I loved every moment of it,” she said. “Looking back, instead of studying foods and nutrition I should have become a teacher.”
In 1985, the family moved to a five-acre spread in Acton. A move to Atascadero lasted a year before a move to the Happy Valley area of Newhall in 1997.
A love of food
Graham learned her love of food from her father.
“I never cooked at home because Dad did most of the cooking. My mother made a great tamale pie and cooked spaghetti about once a week,” she said. “Dad loved to garden, so I grew up with a lot of fresh vegetables. I grew up around really good food.”
Graham was a proponent of eating fresh, local food long before “farm-to-table” became a trend. “I was always very health conscious; I don’t think my oldest child had white sugar until he was 6,” she said.
World of food
“I keep in touch with many of the great women I’ve met through the years. We back each other, we are sincerely happy when one of us wins,” she said.
Graham has met many “food celebrities” including Bobby Flay, Carla Hall, Martha Stewart and Nancy Fuller. “Most celebrities I’ve met have been really nice,” she said. “Rachel Ray is as beautiful off-camera as she is on-camera. She was so supportive of me and said such nice things to me off camera.”
Graham has competed on the Food Network and has published recipes in Taste of Home and Betty Crocker Magazine. Graham, whose Christian faith is an important part of her life, is also the author of two Christian Bible reference books, “Scriptures at Your Fingertips,” published by Simon & Schuster and “Scriptures at Your Fingertips for Teens.”
Among Graham’s favorite memories is the 2011 trip to Scotland to compete in the World Porridge Making Championship. “There are a lot of priceless moments and adventures in the cooking world,” she said. “Like walking down the cobblestone roads in Scotland with bagpipes playing, leading the way in front of me. I thought, ‘this is an experience I could never pay for.’”
Despite her love of cooking competitions Graham admits, “I’ve slowed down in the past few years.” She now finds her true passion is recipe development and food photography.
Graham was one of eight amateur chefs to compete on Saturday, July 27 in the 41stAnnual Great Garlic Cook-off at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. On July 28 a shooting occurred just as the festival was about to close which killed three and injured more than a dozen.
“The whole Gilroy shooting shook me,” said Graham. She had left Gilroy and returned home to Newhall on Sunday morning, before the shooting.
“What really affected me was that 24 hours before the shooting I stood right where the shooter was, watching a concert on Saturday night,” she said. “I met so many wonderful people and volunteers at the event.”
Graham had competed in the contest in 2015, but did not win. “I felt in 2015 I had a few mistakes in execution and I didn’t feel proud of myself. I thought I needed a redo,” she said.
Graham said she had also entered the contest “because I love the challenge of developing a recipe.”
For Gilroy, she developed a complex recipe that required her to complete six different “mini-recipes” within the 2-hour cook time. “I set myself up for my hardest cook-off challenge in 10 years,” she said.
While the $3,000 top prize eluded Graham, she was named runner up, winning $1,500 and a garlic crown.
Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, the head judge on the Bravo reality TV show “Top Chef,” tasted all the food.
“It was such an honor to meet him, he was so genuine. He also had a very calming effect on everyone,” she said. “He had very good things to say about my food. He is a very kind critic. It was a tremendous experience.”
Graham said if Gilroy was her last competitive cook-off, she said, “it was a good way leave the “sport.
“I have this gorgeous crown of garlic, was judged highly and given accolades by the judge from ‘Top Chef,’ that’s the way the go out,” she said.