By trade, Dianna Wara of Washington was a special education teacher until she retired in 2013. Her greatest claim to notoriety, however, is not her career as an educator, but rather her achievements as a cook. In 25 years of participation in cooking contests, she has collected enough awards to fill a fair-sized trophy case. Most recently, she was named the Grand Champion of Culinary for this year’s Illinois State Fair, which took place in August.

“There were eight categories in the culinary competition, and I entered seven of them,” said Wara. “Contestants submit recipes before the fair, and the judges selected seven finalists to cook onstage. I won the chicken category with an Italian chicken quiche, placed second in yeast bread with my garden-fresh chive and parmesan clover rolls, and placed third in the pie and pork categories with a caramel apple-whiskey pie and a pork burger with horseradish sauce.”

In addition to participating in and winning the fair’s culinary competition, Wara also submitted general entries in the bread and cake categories, winning Best in Show awards for both with her cinnamon raisin bread and her yellow cake.

Prominent awards in Wara’s past include a $10,000 special prize in a national Pillsbury Bake-Off for her warm chicken taco salad, first prize in a national C&H Brown Sugar Contest for her cashew and butterscotch yeast rolls, first place in a national bread competition, and trips to two Super Bowls for football-themed recipes.

“On one of my trips to the Super Bowl, my friends and I got to meet (former Dallas Cowboys running back) Emmett Smith,” said Wara. “It was part of the prize package. We got to spend two hours with him before the game. That was a great trip.”

Wara does not see her participation in cooking contests so much a competitive endeavor as an outlet for her creativity and an opportunity for social networking.

“I don’t go into cooking contests with the attitude that ‘we’re going to put up our dukes and fight,’ said Wara. “I’m just there to make the best dish I can, and if I win, that’s great. I have made some of my best friends in cooking contests.”

A family fortunate enough to have an award-winning cook in residence can undoubtedly look forward to sampling memorable cuisine on a regular basis. Wara’s family has been properly appreciative and supportive of her creative outlet, as well as helpful in preparing her for future contests.

“My daughter, son, and husband are all really proud of me,” said Wara. “They have their favorite recipes, but those change over time. During the fair, in addition to all the other contests I was in, I entered a side contest for meatloaf and came in second. I smoked it before I baked it, and it has become one of my husband’s favorites. He is my official taste-tester, and makes suggestions on what I should make for my next contest. Sometimes I follow his suggestions, and sometimes I go my own way.”

In spite of 25 years of experience at competitive cooking and constantly growing list of accolades, Wara maintained that the excitement of winning a contest has by no means worn off.

“I get just as emotional now when I win a contest as I did when I started,” she said. “I cook from my heart, and I put so much of myself into a recipe I create that when the recipe wins something, it’s a thrill for me. That thrill hasn’t worn off in 25 years.”