When World Food Championships competitor Heather Manley dared me to plunge into the pool at the WFC’s meet and greet cocktail party, she could just as easily have been talking about diving right into creating a new recipe for bacon as daring me to jump into a pool. This just seems to be how Heather, who owns and operates Heather’s Dirty Goodness and her own bourbon company among other things, approaches life. Something pulls her interest, she has no qualms whatsoever about plunging in. At least, that’s the impression I got while picking her brain about the WFC, her culinary origin story, and competing in general.
Let’s start with the easy one. How’d you get into cooking?
“I was born into a foodie family. My parents always made different things at home. Your palate progresses wonderfully in that sort of environment. They had a gourmet group that got together and in high school I would observe and help in the kitchen. That elevated my experience and expectations of food. As my business career developed, I really discovered my passion for food as I went out to eat more. From that I grew a huge appreciation for what was around. That’s been over the last 5+ years.
My spice company was an accident. I made a rub and it took off; everyone used it on everything. Then I cold-called a grocery brand in Minneapolis and the VP of operations was willing to sit down with me. I took a lot of notes, don’t like to do anything small, so from that I built a scalable company.
It needed a brand, not just one product. That started me making rubs in the kitchen with wine, creating a product line low in salt with unique combinations of ingredients. That got me into the foodie industry locally.
That made me aware of competitions. A critic wrote about a bacon cook off. I was the last person to sign up and won it. Now I get to meet tons of people who love food, fun people to be around. Now I have a spice company and a spirits line-I’m out quite a bit networking with restaurant owners and other like-minded foodies.”
What are your future plans?
“Leverage the WFC. Take my spices to the next level. Working on my bourbon, vodka, and gin. Now I’m working in my free time to bring those companies up. It’s a matter of staying open to opportunities.”
How was this year’s WFC competition different from last year’s?
“It was a lot more organized. What was great was that people were responsible for getting their own food, so there were no mistakes. It ran really smooth. Overall the structure was similar or better.”
What would you have done differently this year, given 20-20 hindsight?
“I nailed my first two rounds. Totally forgot that the third round was chef-judged. I think my round three dish was too southern/homey/comfort food. I would not have done that dish if I’d remembered it was chef-judged. I would have done my cupcake again only more elevated and interesting. I think I tried to do too much and it got too busy.”
How could the WFC be better?
“It would be fun for them to have more networking opportunities at night. A heads up that the cook tops were induction would have been uber helpful. Most of the chef’s pans were unusable but we didn’t know until we arrived to cook!”
How do you train up for a WFC event?
“I shoot from the hip. I knew what I was making would be good. I’d made the elements before. I don’t feel I get a lot of value over doing it over and over. Maybe that’s why I’m not a chef. I’ve made it before, I feel it’s good, I can work it out in competition. My work went into creating the recipe, refining recipe.”
What were the three dishes you made for bacon this year?
“A bacon bourbon pumpkin cupcake with bacon bourbon salty caramel frosting, second was the bacon Belgian waffle, the third was savory bacon kale tomato grits.”
How will you prepare for next year?
“I think I’ll do R&D in the summer on some recipes. Refining. I may look into some molecular gastronomy and be more technically savvy. That’s one area I already wanted to grow my skillset in. More due diligence on my recipes. Be more cognizant of who’s critiquing what.”