The 34-year-old Kendall mother of three said she won’t stop there.
After graduation from Florida International University, she aims to visit many of the Red Robin restaurants that will begin using a homemade dipping sauce she created to accompany the chain’s “Bottomless Steak Fries.”
“Eventually, I hope to open a restaurant of my own,” she said after taking first place over 100 other entries and winning a $5,000 scholarship “that will really come in handy to finish school,” she said happily from her home in the Elan community of Calusa.
Diaz de Villegas decided to leave teaching three years ago, returning to FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management where more than 1,000 students were eligible to compete for the scholarship.
“When the contest was announced last fall, I had just injured myself playing softball, and I only made the deadline by 15 minutes on crutches, not even thinking I would have much chance to win.”
Nevertheless, on Oct. 18, she became the winner for creating “Tirza’s Tangy Cilantro & Garlic Sauce” in Red Robin’s “Savory Scholar Gourmet Dipping Sauce” competition, receiving the award at Food Network’s “Blue Moon Burger Bash” during the New York City Wine & Food Festival.
In addition to Red Robin Restaurants at The Falls and Pembroke Pines in Broward County, the sauce now will become a menu standard for more than 480 Red Robin Restaurants elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.
Diaz de Villegas credits her grandmother, Isabel Barbakos, a Hammocks resident, with teaching her how to cook “since I was eight years old, along with my mother, both of whom raised me after my father passed on at an early age.”
The recipe that won the contest for her has “a unique blend of mayonnaise, garlic, onion, lemon, cilantro and Greek yogurt that pairs perfectly with Red Robin’s Steak Fries,” according to the contest announcement.
“Actually, it’s a family recipe that we tweaked a bit,” laughed Tirza, wife of Ulysses De Villegas, manager of a Body Cut Fitness Center.
“I give him credit, too,” she added. “He urged me to go back to school and ‘go for it.’”