Laurie Figone of Petaluma grew up on the 1,000-acre Leveroni Brothers Dairy ranch in Novato and studied agriculture at Petaluma High School.
Nowadays, the 55-year-old mother of two uses the lessons she learned on the farm to win one top prize after another in amateur cooking contests. It's her claim to fame.
When she got married 28 years ago, her grandmother taught her how to make a family recipe for ravioli. That ravioli became Figone's signature dish, a labor of love stuffed with meat and smothered in tomato sauce.
"Word of mouth got out," she said. "One Christmas, I made 10,000 raviolis."
In 2009, Figone decided to enter her Tomato and Brie Focaccia in a contest sponsored by Taste of Home magazine. It won in the tomato dish category.
"That's how I got into recipe contests," she said. "I'm a perfectionist, and I was trying to perfect my focaccia."
At the moment, Figone is a finalist in the 2013 "Get Wild with Wild Rice" contest sponsored by the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council.
In November, she will head to Las Vegas to compete in the World Dessert Championship as part of the World Food Championships.
"There will be 50 people just in the dessert category alone," she said. "And there are professional pastry chefs competing with home cooks."
On the first day of the competition, Figone will make a signature dessert and a "build," meaning an original dessert using the same ingredients that were given to the other contestants.
"After the first day, they will pick 10 top winners," she said. "Then the 10 finalists bake on Saturday, and that winner goes to the Final Table on Sunday."
The 2013 World Food Championships showcase classic American cuisine in several categories, with about 350 contestants vying for best barbecue and chili, burgers and sandwiches as well as desserts. Champions in each category win $10,000, and the Final Table champion takes home $50,000.
So far, the cooking contest venture has been an exciting ride for Figone, who has connected with dozens of "Facebook foodie friends" through the process.
"I don't enter near as many as other people," she said. "You could enter a contest a day."
The stakes are high. One of Figone's Facebook friends won $10,000 from Foster Farms and $25,000 from Scharffenberger chocolate.
In 2010, Figone won $500 from Kraft's Real Women of Philadelphia Contest for her recipe for Lean Green Slaw made with honey-nut cream cheese.
"That was huge, because there was a lot of competition," she said.
In 2010, she also launched her own TV show, "Cooking with Laurie," in her home kitchen. The show airs on the Petaluma Community Access station.
"I'm visiting all the local growers and producers," she said. "Then I come back and cook."
In 2011, she entered Gilroy's "So You Think You Can Cook with Garlic" contest, taking home first place and $1,000 for her Triple G Almost Famous Focaccia Bread.
In 2012, she was one of three finalists nationwide to fly to Oregon for the Bob's Red Mill "Spar for the Spurtle" U.S. Porridge Making Championship. After winning there, she flew on to Scotland, where she won the 19th annual "Golden Spurtle" World Porridge Making Competition with her Italian Pinhead Torta. ("Pinhead" is slang for the steel-cut oats she used instead of rice, while a spurtle is a rod-like wooden kitchen tool used for stirring porridge.)