Macon native to battle Bobby Flay on Food Network

People across the country will watch a Macon native battle it out with a Food Network chef Wednesday night in a carrot cake challenge.

Vera Wingfield Stewart, a caterer, will appear on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” at 9 p.m.

Her love of cooking began at an early age.

Stewart has fond childhood memories of her mother taking her and her younger brother to the train station at the bottom of Cherry Street to board the Nancy Hanks train to visit her grandmother in Atlanta.

“I’m named for her,” Stewart said, adding her grandmother’s nickname was “Very Vera,” the name of Stewart’s catering business in Augusta.

She fondly remembers baking with her grandmother, and many of the cakes she sells are made from variations of her grandmother’s recipes.

When Stewart got older, her high school home economics teacher, Catherine DuPree, influenced her to major in home economics.

“Not only have I used it, but I built a business around it,” she said.

Stewart also credits another Maconite, businessman Bill Matthews, for planting a seed that influenced her success.

As a 15-year-old, she worked on the switchboard at the Belk Matthews department store in downtown Macon. The switchboard was located just outside the corporate office hall, and Matthews has served as a business mentor ever since, Stewart said.

“You could tell at a relatively early age that she had a creative and enterprising personality,” Matthews said.

After graduating from Central High School in 1971, Stewart worked as a home economics teacher for four years before starting a small catering business in her home.

Very Vera, Stewart’s Augusta catering business, grew out of Stewart’s home catering business once she built a list of reliable clients and started getting calls for larger orders.

Rett Walker, a former banker who served as Stewart’s first loan officer, remembers granting Stewart the startup loan for the business in 1986.

“I asked her what she was using as collateral for the loan, and she looked at me sternly and said ‘kitchen equipment,’’’ Walker said.

Stewart said her family prompted her to submit a demo tape for the Food Network’s “The Next Food Network Star” show in 2008. After sending in a second tape, she was asked in February to send in a demo tape about carrot cake.

“The stars started aligning,” she said.

Stewart said she was chosen to appear on an episode of “Top that Cake” on the new Cooking Channel.

But while filming in April, Stewart got a last-minute surprise.

“In walked Bobby Flay,” she said.

Although Stewart said she can’t disclose who won the competition for making the best carrot cake, she said she felt at home in front of the camera and the 100-person audience.

“I have never felt so great about an experience,” she said.

For a caterer who also operates a mail-order bakery, exposure to a national audience is a huge opportunity, Stewart said.

“It’s just gigantic,” she said.

Stewart said she hopes the exposure will help her get closer to achieving her goal of having her own television cooking show geared toward children.

Telegraph writer Carl Lewis contributed to this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.