STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Some of the nation's amateur cooks have a shot a million dollar prize this weekend at the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Ms. ELLIE MATTHEWS ("The Ungarnished Truth"): You would think you'd see people elbowing each other's eggs off the kitchen counter, you know, some kind of sabotage - throwing a little hot pepper in a chocolate cake - but it's quite the opposite of that.
INSKEEP: Ellie Matthews speaks from experience. Ten years ago, her recipe for salsa couscous chicken won the grand prize at the bake-off. As it begins again, she's published a memoir about the experience, called "The Ungarnished Truth." Talk us through that process. You start, I suppose, one person alone in a kitchen. What's your ambition and what do you do first?
Ms. MATTHEWS: Well, for me it involves a fair amount of experimentation and just trying to dream up what could I do with a can of biscuits that nobody ever did before? I mean, for example, you know the kind of biscuits I'm talking about, that come in a paper tube.
INSKEEP: Oh yeah.
Ms. MATTHEWS: And you whap it against the counter and they all burst out. I boiled some. And before you laugh out loud, let me say, bagels are boiled before they're baked.
Ms. MATTHEWS: And pretzels are boiled before they're baked, and I thought it might be a good idea. But don't try it.
INSKEEP: But it's good that you were brave enough to take that step.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Well, I don't know how much bravery it takes to put out 89 cents on a can of something and try it - I mean, nobody's around to see me have a bad idea. But anyway, after that, when there is something that seems to come together and make something that you'd want to put on a plate and serve to someone, write it up, send it in, let the judging begin.
INSKEEP: Well, I suppose we should emphasize that you talk about dealing with a tube of biscuits or some chicken breasts or whatever else, you're not thinking in terms of reaching for the rarest Tasmanian root that's going to create a flavor that no one has ever tasted before.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Well, some people do. And each contest seems to have its own culture. For the Pillsbury Bake-Off, I think we would not want that Tasmanian root.
INSKEEP: It sounds like you prefer to work with what you've got.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Well, I typically buy ingredients that look good and wrestle them into a pan and serve a meal. I don't do a lot. I'm not a fussy cook. I don't put four different kinds of sea salt into something or 18 different kinds of vinegar or whatever. I wouldn't say I'm a plain cook, but I'm fairly practical.
INSKEEP: I want to flip here to the recipe that won. And I do want to emphasize again the simplicity of this. It's three short paragraphs. You've got a skillet, you've got some garlic, you've got some chicken thighs, you've got some salsa. So what was your idea?
Ms. MATTHEWS: The idea was to take the Mexican assumption of salsa and grab it by the throat and carry it across the globe to Morocco.
INSKEEP: So you were one of thousands and thousands of people across the country submitting these recipes. Judges sift through them, you find out you're one of 100 finalists, and what happens then?
Ms. MATTHEWS: At the time, I lived in Seattle, so what it meant for me to become a finalist in the contest that year is that I'd be flown to Orlando where we'd all be gathering in a huge hotel and making the recipes three times. Once for the judges, once for display, and then optionally the third time if we wanted to pass out samples.
And we started cooking at 9:00 in the morning and one person's making something ooey-gooey with chocolate, and someone else has garlic sauteing in olive oil, and the blend of aromas was staggering.
INSKEEP: Did you look over at the next table and think, oh no, I should've thought of that. Or uh-oh, I have no chance now.
Ms. MATTHEWS: When I was cooking, I wasn't thinking about my chances of winning. I went to the contest with the idea of being in training so I could see how it worked, so I could get an inside look at what the operation amounted to, so I could go back another time and enter in earnest. And in fact, at the winning moment, believe it or not, in a millisecond of awareness that I'd risen to the top, one of my thoughts was, oh no, I can't come back. I knew I had been disqualified by virtue of winning the grand prize.
INSKEEP: Wait, this is a practice run, take back your million dollars. I'm having too much fun.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Exactly. Well, I wasn't quite thinking in such rational terms.
INSKEEP: Do you mind if we play a bit of tape of that moment, the winning moment here? And I guess we're gonna hear the voice of Alex Trebek, the famous game show host.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Yes.
INSKEEP: Master of ceremonies.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Yes.
INSKEEP: At the Pillsbury Bake-off some time ago.
Ms. MATTHEWS: No problem.
(Soundbite of Pillsbury Bake-Off)
Mr. ALEX TREBEK (Master of Ceremonies): Ladies and gentlemen, the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off one million dollar grand prize winning recipe is…
(Soundbite of Drum Roll)
Mr. TREBEK: The Southwest Couscous Chicken. Ellie Matthews of Seattle, Washington. Come out here.
INSKEEP: Wow. That must've been pretty exciting.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, when I saw that I had won, and the way they announce it is to show the winning dish and lift a big silver dome up and the winning dish is under the dome, and my first thought was, they've made a mistake. And someone - one of the Pillsbury people will come out on stage and say, we're terribly sorry, but we put the wrong thing under there.
INSKEEP: Wasn't true. Wasn't true.
Ms. MATTHEWS: And I also felt, I felt a little bit embarrassed because I wasn't sure that I had earned it. I had made mistakes in the recipe. I hadn't called for a garnish, and garnishing, and how you plate the food is a big part of the judging. And I meant to say boneless skinless thighs and I failed to say boneless.
INSKEEP: You keep saying you failed. I'm not sure I can think of another contest winner who's used the word failed in reference to themselves.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Oh dear. Oh, I'm supposed to - someone had said I shouldn't be so self-deprecating, but it just seems to be my natural mode. I mean, I don't think I have any claim on being a better cook than anybody else. I like to cook and I'm not afraid to try things, but I wouldn't - I mean, I don't think winning this contest establishes me as anything when it just comes to me putting a meal together at home.
INSKEEP: Well, Ellie Matthews, author of "The Ungarnished Truth," I have to tell you, I'm hungry so I'm gonna go. But thank you very much.
Ms. MATTHEWS: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Before I do run off, let me just mention that you can hear what Ellie Matthews did with her prize money, and also get her recipe for salsa couscous chicken at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.