Alumna’s Love Of Food Turns Competitive

A former triple major at Concordia, Sonya (Nelson) Goergen ’99 knows how to balance time. Today, she’s juggling ingredients in the kitchen as well. Despite lacking professional culinary training, she’s cooked her way to the semifinals of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, one of the world’s greatest cooking contests.

Read our Q-and-A session to get a taste of the passion behind her award-winning mini Italian shepherd’s pies.

Q. How did you get into competitive cooking?

A. My sisters and I have been competitively cooking against each other since 2001 (both are Cobber grads). When our dad was diagnosed with cancer, we would get together on Sundays to fatten him up after he had lost a lot of weight due to chemo treatments. Our brother once told me that my sister made a recipe better than mine. So we started family “festivals” to outdo each other.

I entered a cooking contest in 2007 on a whim after watching a TV show and thinking, “I could do that.” Since then, it’s been a good hobby because my family has to eat anyway. We might as well make it interesting. Sometimes things turn out weird and then we have something to talk about. My siblings get sick of me talking about food, but everyone I know likes to be a judge. My husband, kids and siblings are the most honest critics. Everyone else is too nice.

Q. Where did the inspiration for mini Italian shepherd’s pies come from?

A. I have been entering the Pillsbury Bake-off Contest since 2008. Around the time of submissions, I get a little crazy thinking about how I could put any ingredient in Pillsbury pie crust or dough or unique ways to use Pillsbury products. My family gets sick of hearing about the Bake-Off. I even made lemon chicken with lemon frosting. Unbelievable, but it was good.

I was eating dinner with my family and was eyeing my daughter’s meatball, thinking about what crust it would fit into. I tried it a few different ways, including stuffing it into a crescent roll and then thought that if I put something on top of it, it would taste good. I experimented a bit, submitted it both with a meatball and ground beef and Pillsbury picked the mini Italian shepherd’s pies. They’re easy and awesome. I entered eight recipes in this round of the contest.

Q. What do you love about cooking/baking?

Sonya with Guy Fieri in the Food Network Kitchen

A. Cooking is how I relax. I like cooking because you really can’t mess up (you just add something else) and it gives me an outlet for creativity.

Entering cooking contests has been a great hobby because I have been invited to places I would likely have never visited such as South Pittsburg, Tenn. If you’re ever in the area, check out the National Cornbread Cook-Off. It’s a great festival and a beautiful part of the country! I’ve met a number of famous chefs, learned some new techniques, won a large number of products and cash, and have met some great friends who are as obsessed with food as I am.

Q. As a semifinalist, what would winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest mean to you?

A. Of course, I would love to win the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. Who wouldn’t want to win a million dollars? But just getting to “the” Bake-Off has been a goal of mine for five years. It’s the greatest cooking contest that exists. Participating in the contest will also allow me to meet up with cooking friends I have met over the years at cooking contests all over the U.S. and to cook alongside the Doughboy. How fun!

I think the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest is also a measure of credibility as a recipe writer. I didn’t go to culinary school, but I have some “chops.” I can taste things and recreate them and I have unique ideas.

Goergen lives in Moorhead with her husband, Troy, and two children, Olivia, 5, and Gabriel, 2.

Vote for Sonya and her Mini Italian Shepherd’s Pie

Mini Italian Shepherd’s Pie Recipe

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