Susan Simons is a courier for FedEx, not a professional chef.
Which makes her rise in the ranks of “Food Sports” all that more unlikely.
Simons, 52, left Saturday for her fifth turn at competing in the World Food Championships held in Dallas. The event, which began Wednesday, bills itself as the largest food sports event in the world and the “ultimate food fight.”
The Spanaway mother of two is competing in the chili category.
“Some people read novels at night,” she said. “I read cookbooks.”
A room in her tidy suburban home holds more than 1,000 of the culinary books.
Simons calls herself lucky.
“I have no formal training,” she said. “I’ve taken one set of night classes.”
Raised by a mother who disdained cooking, Simons didn’t learned the skill until she was forced to as an Air Force wife living in Panama.
Using a book called “Confessions of an Organized Housewife” and a Betty Crocker cookbook, she taught herself the skills needed to feed her growing family where bread was delivered only twice a year.
“My boys hated Crock-Pot Sunday,” she said. A Crock-Pot still sits on her kitchen counter, along with a couple of toasters and a microwave oven.
Recipes for success
Simons has been delivering packages for customers in South Pierce County for over 20 years.
She says there are some similarities between her day job and food competitions. Both are performed under tight deadlines, and both require nimble navigation skills, whether it’s on the back roads of Pierce County or in a kitchen.
Simons began her food sports streak almost by chance. She entered a recipe competition in 2010.
More recipe competitions followed, eventually leading up to a rib competition.
“Well, that gave me my first blue ribbon,” she said. Simons’ “Wow Ribs” win was also her ticket to the first World Food Championships in 2012.
In 2013, she competed again at the WFC, this time in the bacon category.
In 2014, she won the Washington State Chili Cookoff at the Hometown Throwdown at Cheney Stadium and thus began her road to chili stardom.
“I know chili, and it’s comfortable,” she said.
At this week’s competition, she’ll be using tri tip steak, beef broth, chicken bouillon, a can of tomato sauce, onion and garlic powders and some secret spices.
“I add my spices at different times,” she said. “At the very end, I check it for heat.”
She’s recently started to judge chili competitions. At a recent contest she presided over, a chili chef used 16 habanero peppers for his “heat.” Habaneros are some of the hottest chili peppers on the market. He didn’t win.
The five-day-long event in Dallas this week has 1,500 would-be champs competing in 10 categories that include burgers, sandwiches, desserts, steak and seafood. The winner of each category can win $10,000, and the final champion gets $100,000.
It’s only for those who can stand the heat of 1,000 kitchens.
“You walk in and it’s really overwhelming,” Simons said.
Each chef and their team is assigned an eight-foot-square kitchen with refrigerators, stoves, cookware and other implements. Simons has already shipped her knives to Dallas — a locally-made set by V Knives of Eatonville.
Each cooking arena has its own aroma, Simons said.
“Chili, you get this overwhelming aroma of the chilis,” she said. “With dessert, it could be anything. You could smell pumpkin spice, you could smell maple, you could smell vanilla.”
Time is of the essence at the championships.
When Simons served as a sous chef at the competition in 2015, time ran out and her team was disqualified.
“It boils down to seconds,” she said.
A platter set with tasting samples must be delivered to the judges by the final deadline, usually 2-3 hours after the starting bell.
“It’s high stress, but it’s worth it,” she said. “The people you meet are just amazing.”
There’s one more reason she likes food sports.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” she said. “It’s another reason why I like FedEx.”
Great cooking skills aren’t a guarantee of placing well at the WFC.
“I’ve seen people that are amazing cooks, amazing chefs fall flat on their face,” she said. “I’ve seen people that are, like I would consider myself, a lucky home cook and come in and do amazing or at least hold their own.”
As grocery stores increase their “grab and go” sections of heat-and-serve food, Simons wonders if America is losing its ability to cook and appreciate good food.
Although she taught herself how to cook, she didn’t pass the skills on to her two sons.
“My children don’t know how to cook,” she said. “I would kick them out of the kitchen and never taught them. It’s probably one of my biggest regrets.”
She understands, after working her own 14-hour days, that the last thing someone might want to do is come home and cook.
But, she says, it’s worth it.
“A home-cooked meal is so much better than something you can grab off of a grocery store shelf,” she said.