A first-time recipe contest entrant surprised everyone – mostly herself – by winning Sutter Home’s 29th Annual Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest at the national cook-off held Oct. 17 in St. Helena.

Leora Breese of Pomona created the Shakshuka Sunrise Burger on the off-chance that it might gain her entrance to the nation’s longest-running burger contest.

“I’m a massage therapist by trade and one day I was in-between appointments, scrolling through Facebook, when I saw the ad for Build A Better Burger,” Breese said. “My sister and I love to cook and we’re a little competitive in the kitchen but I’ve never competed before.”

A traditional Middle Eastern breakfast dish, Shakshuka, inspired Breese’s burger concept. “I had this recipe rolling around in my brain but I’d never actually put all the components together before I submitted the recipe,” Breese said.

Yet two months later she received an email notifying her that she was a semi-finalist. “So I started practicing the heck out of this recipe.”

That practice paid off handsomely with a grand prize of $25,000.

Breese and her husband Jason, a graphics designer, have been married for three years.

“We have been saving up like crazy for a down payment on a house and this gets us there – we’re so excited,” Breese said.

“The Sutter Home team is thrilled to help Leora and her husband Jason take the next step in their journey together,” said Brie Wohld, vice president, marketing for Sutter Home.

Breese describes her winning recipe as “a gorgeous mash-up of two of my favorite foods: breakfast burgers and shakshuka. The tomato, bell pepper and caramelized onion spread is a delicious smoky departure from ketchup, paired with quick pickled cucumber for a cool crunch and a fried egg with a glorious runny yolk.”

The five finalists’ inspired recipes were evaluated by a panel of five judges: Casey Thompson, a “Top Chef” alumni; Kevin Kolman, Weber’s Head Grill Master; Chef Lars Kronmark, Senior Chef-Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America; Juliana Evans, owner of Farm Girl Eats; and 2009’s Build a Better Burger champion, Naylet LaRochelle.

And what did it take to impress these judges?

“For me, it was basically the overall uniqueness of the flavors. I’m a big fan of the sweet and savory aspects of the burger,” said Evans.

“What I enjoy most about this competition is that it took traditional American barbecue and infused it with the world’s culture,” Kolman said.

St. Helenan Kronmark is a big fan of the contest. “People are cooking more and more – that’s what we see across the United States – and it’s bringing families back to the table.”

“I was very impressed with the creativity and the introduction of many ethnic flavors,” he added.

LaRochelle particularly enjoyed the chance to be “on the other side of the table.” “It’s one thing to come as a finalist – you’re super nervous and excited.” But being a judge gave her a “well-rounded appreciation for this particular contest.”

Build a Better Burger is “a well-coveted contest and to be a part of it both as a finalist and a judge is an honor,” LaRochelle said. “Sutter Home does such a great job of promoting the use of wine by home cooks – they reach out to all of America – and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Returning judge Thompson (a self-confessed burger-lover and connoisseur) believes this competition “is a real good chance for people to showcase something that they love.”

These home chefs “are at home practicing these recipes and then they bring them to the public – it is absolutely terrifying,” Thompson said. “I just love it – people from all over just cooking their hearts out.”

Sutter Home’s Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest will once again open in spring 2020, for its 30th year. All are encouraged to submit their favorite burger recipes for their chance to win $30,000 at the 2020 milestone cook-off. For additional information on the contest or to access past Sutter Home Build a Better Burger recipes and wine pairing suggestions, visit sutterhome.com.

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