Although Dianna Wara of Washington has been participating in and winning cooking competitions for 25 years, she still sees every contest as a potential learning experience.

“If I can walk away having learned even one thing about any of the foods that were cooked, it just makes me a stronger person,” she said. “I really look at competitions as growing opportunities, not only as a person, but as a professional baker, too.”

The idea of Wara continuing to improve her cooking skills with each competition is potential cause for alarm among her opponents. She recently collected her third Grand Champion title in the Illinois Blue Ribbon Culinary contest at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. She also won the award in 2005 and 2017, and has three second-place Reserve Grand Champion awards to her credit.

During the Illinois Blue Ribbon Culinary contest, cooks from all over the state compete in seven categories. The Grand Champion is the contestant who submits the best single dish out of 56 total entries. Wara’s winning entry consisted of Italian bagels, which took first place in the yeast bread category before being considered for the grand prize.

“They have Italian herbs and a little garlic,” said Wara. “Then I made a tomato and basil cream cheese schmear to go with them. You can’t be a beginner to shape bagels. They’re very hard to shape. It’s (taken) me a good six months to get the shaping right. When they judge, they not only look for taste, they look for consistency. ‘Are they all baked the same color? Do they look the same?’”

Wara believes her stiffest competition this year came from Bake-a-Cake competition winner, and fellow Tazewell County resident, Mary Beth Pederson of Morton, and from Main Dish Using Pork second-place finisher Linda Cifuentes. Cifuentes, Wara’s long-time friend and rival, was named Reserve Grand Champion, which Wara found particularly gratifying.

(Cifuentes) has been my friend since Day One at the State Fair,” Wara said. “We’ve had 20-plus years together, so I was happy that her and I got first and second.”

The lessons Wara learns during a competition often include new recipes she can try out on her family and hopefully add to her repertoire. This year, she returned from Springfield with a plan to develop her own version of Cifuentes’ oven-baked ribs, Pederson’s Earl Grey tea cake with brown sugar icing and a coffee cake she saw submitted in the state fair’s Baked Desserts Using Dairy Foods category.

The ribs looked absolutely amazing, so I will definitely do oven ribs,” she said “That’s a great meal to do in winter, because since you bake them in the oven, you don’t have to worry about cooking them outside on a grill. The coffee cake and the cake were amazing, so I think those are going to be in my repertoire this year.”

After 22 years of competing at the Illinois State Fair, Wara does not see herself retiring from that event in the foreseeable future.

“(I plan to keep doing it) until I’m no longer on this earth or until my body physically gives out,” she said.