NORMAN — Norman resident Sandi Sheppard won’t settle for your typical meatloaf or casserole. She insists on tweaking and mixing unusual ingredients like blueberries and steak. This winter, she competed in one of the biggest food competitions in the United States: the World Food Championships.
The competition is set to air on A&E this spring.
Sheppard said she hopes to make Oklahoma proud and loves using ingredients representative of the area, like bison.
A self-taught cook, Sheppard has described her cooking as “family approved” and has more than 50 years experience in the kitchen whipping up unique, delicious dishes.
“As soon as I could see the top of the stove, I wanted to cook,” she said.
Sheppard said after school, she would religiously watch Julia Child and, when she was 14, decided to make a candlelit dinner for her parents.
“I couldn’t drive, and I didn’t have any money. So my parents had to take me to the store and pay for everything, but I was able to make a four-to-five-course meal with dishes from what I’d seen on Julia Child,” Sheppard said.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Sheppard considered participating in cooking competitions. After her oven broke, Sheppard took a look around her 20-plus year kitchen and decided it needed a change.
“I wanted to remodel my kitchen, and I wanted to make the money myself,” she said. “My husband and I run Dailey Digital Signs & Designs. I’m a graphic artist. Having your own business can be up and down, so I didn’t want the remodel money to come out of our business.”
After using the internet to search out competitions, Sheppard jumped in feet first to a national cornbread cook-off in Tennessee and was selected as a finalist for her Cheesy Succulent Tomato Pie on a Tomato-Rosemary Cornbread Crust.
“I didn’t know how competitive I was until I started these cooking competitions,” she said. “After that, I was hooked.”
From there, Sheppard enter competition after competition, including the 2010 Aetna Healthy Food Fight, Pretzel Crisps Appetizer Challenge, 2012 Beringer Steak Challenge and more.
She has won swag and cash prizes and had her recipes featured on product containers like Philadelphia Cooking Creme and in cookbooks, as well as appeared on television programs such as the 2013 Anderson Live Cookie Challenge.
Sheppard said she likes to cook everything, but she is probably best at Italian, Mexican and comfort food. She also enjoys mixing vinaigrettes and spicy ingredients like sriracha with sweets.
“You can come up with so many flavors with these kind of combinations,” she said.
On June 29, Sheppard entered one of her biggest competitions yet, the OKC Bull Burger Battle. It was for amateurs and professionals and was a qualifying competition for the World Food Championships. Sheppard said the temperatures outside were more than 100 degrees. While she was cooking, asphalt melted into her tennis shoes.
“I almost didn’t go because of the heat, and the competition was open to professionals,” she said. “I had these two big guys standing on my left who were professional chefs. It was intimidating.”
Sheppard’s Big Bite Best-Of-The-Bull Burger with smoky chipotle-tequila tomato jam, jicama and avocado relish and a chipotle bacon mustard aioli was tasty enough to impress judges and secure a win to qualify for the World Food Championships.
Facing more than 300 competitors from around the world, Sheppard competed tournament style in the World Food Championships in Las Vegas at the end of December.
With seven categories — including barbecue, chili, burger, dessert, sandwich, bacon and recipe — Sheppard competed in the burger category. She prepared her OKC Bull Burger Battle winning burger and a patty melt using TNT seasoned hamburger patties, which was a requirement for all competitors’ second burger.
Fellow cook Tresa Hargrove joined Sheppard in Las Vegas as her helper. Sheppard said having her friend with her, as well as connecting with friends from the Real Women of Philadelphia cooking group and previous competitions, was the best part of the World Food Championships.
“Even though I didn’t win, the trip was a learning experience,” Sheppard said, “and seeing my friends was a highlight.”
In the future, Sheppard said she’ll keep competing, especially in competitions with a cash prize, and also hopes to have her own online cooking channel.
“I’ve proven to myself that my food is worth sharing with others,” she said.