After her youngest went off to college, Lisa Gwatney wanted something to occupy her free time when not working as Director of FedEx’s Strategic Portfolio Management Office. At the encouragement of her husband and friends, Lisa decided to try her hand at competition cooking. It’s a decision that paid off, as she recently won the coveted title of World Food Champion with her award-winning “Steak and Tators” dish: grilled Wagyu ribeye filet with seared foie gras, wild mushrooms and an amarone reduction sauce served with white truffle potato galette and steamed carrots. Yum! In addition to winning the title, she also won $100,000. It is our pleasure to introduce you to today’s FACE of Memphis, Lisa Gwatney, reigning World Food Champion.
When did you start cooking, and why do you enjoy it?
I grew up cooking. My father is from Kentucky and was one of 14 kids. I have wonderful memories of standing in front of the stove on a footstool cooking with my grandmother. Growing up on a farm, we had access to the freshest ingredients all the time. We also raised our own beef and pork. When I grew up, I had a natural passion to learn and to cook food from all cultures.
What inspired you to compete?
My husband has been a competitive cook for over a decade. He and his BBQ team won the Memphis in May World Championship in 2005. The wife of my husband’s BBQ partner decided she was going to compete in steak cooking competitions and asked if I would be interested. I, of course, said yes! The following week, I was cooking in a competition. It is addictive. I love the people. It is very much like a family. After winning in Greenwood, MS, I qualified for the World Food Championships and registered immediately!
Tell us about competing in the World Food Championships.
There were 1,250 contestants, 450 teams, 10 categories, 14 countries and 48 states. The logistics of kitchens set up in an outside tent were impressive. We were definitely rookies, and while we did encounter issues such as our presentation plate was too large, we finished and felt good in what we turned in.
When they announced the top ten for the Steak category, I came in 8 of 10. I knew if I had any chance of winning, I had to step up my game for the final round. The final round was similar to the “Chopped” TV show. They gave us coffee and steaks, and we had to cook them and present them from our point of view. When they called us on the stage later that evening and began counting down the winners as it got closer and closer, finally calling my name, I truly could not have been more shocked. If you see the video, I am really jumping around and, at my age, did not think I could still do that!
We then had several months to prepare for the Final Table, which is where the World Champs in each category (Steak, Chili, Sandwich, Bacon, Seafood, Chef, Chicken, BBQ, Burger, Dessert) would face off against each other. We could cook the same dish if we wanted to, but I am a creative person and really wanted to reimagine the dish. We planned and cooked for months. When we departed for Bentonville, Arkansas, to compete, we felt calm and prepared.
We felt overall really good that we had done our best. But everyone had done their best too, and the food in the room was the best I had ever seen in my life. The 10 best cooks in the world were facing off, and the showcase was impressive! Again, the countdown began. Down to the top three, and they brought us on the stage. Three was chicken, then second was BBQ — that meant first was me! I honestly was so shocked, so humbled. As I stood there, what I really felt was how all of us should be on the stage. I consider my role as the World Champion to represent all 10 of us in my effort to make food sport known and to encourage families to come back to the table and share time together.
Tell us about your “real” job at FedEx.
I started at FedEx right out of college. I began in the Global Operations and Control Department, which dispatches the flights that FedEx operates daily. When my son was born, I knew that I could not continue to work night and weekend shifts and moved to the business side, which is what brought me to my current career through various paths. I am the Director of the Strategic Portfolio Management Office. My team is responsible for defining and managing the plans that enable enterprise software solutions for our company. Working for a company with such an impressive brand is a real honor. I have been with FedEx for 28 years, and I can honestly say I work for the best company in the world.
Do you have a favorite dish to make?
As an Italian American, I really love Italian food. I love making pasta dishes, and it really is comfort food for me. My favorite dish to make is either my Sunday meatball sauce or my Bolognese sauce.
What has been the most exciting part of competition cooking? The most challenging?
The most exciting part is the ability to put the perfect dish together in a confined amount of time. Seeing the final product and seeing the judges enjoy it is truly exciting! Once I saw the judge lick the plate! The most challenging is the time constraint. You must be organized. You need to plan your dish within 80% of the time allocation because so many things happen that you cannot predict.
What inspires you?
I am always inspired by unsolicited kindness to others. It is so much easier to be kind than it isn’t. “It is far more important what you do when others are not looking than when they are” is what my father always told us growing up. I really think that is true. As a Christian, I want to love and accept everyone for who they are.
What is your best piece of advice?
Be true to yourself. Don’t try to fit in. Be happy. Find what makes you happy, and do it! Make a difference.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My kitchen, farmers markets and my relationship with my husband. I realize that falls in the family bucket, but I do believe that having a partner in life that you have fun with and do things that you love with is so important.
Thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the gorgeous photos!
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