COOKING for Gillian Evans has always been a necessity, but luckily one she has always enjoyed.
Meal times were always an important part of her life growing up and again when she had a family of her own.
But never did she imagine that two of the dishes she created in her Uffculme home would win her a top regional accolade.
Gillian, a freelance secretary, was one of the finalists in the South West Chef of the Year Awards and at a special ceremony in Exeter she won the South West Home Cook category.
The culinary spectacle, held at ABode in Cathedral Green, saw competitors pulling out all the stops to impress a panel of judges that included Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines.
And Gillian's starter of a salad of smoked pork fillet and her main of John Dory fillets with scallops and mussels in a cream sauce did just that.
She said: "I was very surprised at being a winner as the other two contestants in the competition were both previous winners and this being my very first competition didn't expect to win.
"I was delighted to be a finalist. I am now the proud owner of two plates, one saying finalist and the other saying winner. But one other thing that gave me pleasure was hearing my name as a finalist in the 'use of regional produce'.
"I have always enjoyed trying new and varied things – not so easy back in the early 70's when ingredients we come to think of as everyday were difficult to come by or prohibitively expensive," she said. "But I always had fun improvising, using techniques passed on from my grandmother and mother then encouraging my four children and now my grandchildren to do the same.
"My children and step-children may be grown up with children of their own, but time spent around preparing a meal and all of us eating together remains a special time. And yes, my children still help sometimes… my kitchen seems constantly full of people.
"I am so lucky living where I do that some of the best ingredients in the world can be found close by, fish landed in Brixham and meat from the neighbouring Blackdown and Exmoor Hills. I like to do my best to do nature justice."
Gillian said it was a last minute decision to enter the competition.
"I have received many compliments on my food and have often thought of entering a competition to test how good I am," she said. "I saw the South West Chef of the Year competition advertised within days of the closing date for applications, and decided to put a menu together and enter."
So how did she choose her winning recipes?
"It was very simple," she smiles. "I like fish very much and decided the John Dory would be my main course and quickly found the basis of a recipe that included scallops and mussels.
"How to achieve a starter out of a pork tenderloin was something else – but I chatted to my son (who is a professional chef) and he suggested smoking the tenderloin.
"I practised the dishes individually on three or four occasions and on a complete run through twice. I did the run through to give me my timings to make sure I didn't over-run during the competition."
So has this success whetted Gillian's appetite to take her cooking further?
"Not particularly," she says. "I am a freelance secretary and I make soap to sell at craft fairs, so I lead a busy life. However becoming involved in promoting local produce and encouraging others to consider food miles and seasonality interests me. Advocating using fresh ingredients produced on our own doorsteps."
A big part of the South West Chef competition is for the competitors to demonstrate their understanding of and commitment to the diverse array of high quality ingredients produced in the South West, while simultaneously raising awareness of its diversity and accessibility.
John Sheaves, chief executive of Taste of the West, said good local produce had given contestants the finest ingredients.
He added: "This is the only South West competition allowing the region's professional chefs and home cooks to shine.
"With the opportunity to demonstrate their talents for our panel of judges, a rare gathering of the finest chefs in the South West, the work of the contestants is made easier with the extensive availability of regionally produced ingredients of the highest quality."
The competition is, of course, also renowned for recognising the skill and dedication of professional chefs, up-and-coming young chefs and amateur cooks.
The competition has highlighted the high standards that exist in the hospitality industry in the South West, raising the bar for all involved and improving the profitability and sustainability of a significant industry.
Exeter's Michael Caines, head judge of the competition, praised the standard of cooking at this year's event.
He said: "The quality was the highest we have seen in the nine years since it began. The finals were extremely closely contested by some incredibly skilful chefs. The competition identifies some of the most talented chefs in the South West and highlights the quality of the region's hospitality industry."
The judging panel also included Peter Gorton, of Gorton's, Tavistock; brothers Chris and James Tanner, of Tanners Restaurant and Barbican Brasserie, Plymouth; and Simon Hulstone of The Elephant Restaurant, Torquay.
Michael Tweedie, junior sous-chef at Lucknam Park, Bath, was crowned South West Chef of the Year 2012 in the professional class. And Elly Wentworth, demi-chef de partie at the Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, Wiltshire, won top chef in the young professional class. Both winners beat 12 others in culinary competitions over two months.
Other awards were presented included: Best Dish won by Camilla Waite from The Seafood Restaurant, Padstow; Best Presentation won by Jordan Bailey, The Elephant Restaurant, Torquay; Most Creative Menu won by Michael Tweedie, Lucknam Park, Bath; and Best Use of Regional produce awarded to Brett Sutton, The Eastbury Hotel, Sherborne, Dorset.
For more details on the competition visit: www.southwestchef.co.uk