Kids concoct cafeteria cuisine in Jr. Iron Chef competition

Williston Central School Culinary Cuties team members Halina Vercessi-Clarke (left) and Isabelle Barrett crack up while cooking their dish during Saturday’s Jr. Iron Chef VT competition. (Observer courtesy photo by Tom Waters)
Williston Central School Culinary Cuties team members Halina Vercessi-Clarke (left) and Isabelle Barrett crack up while cooking their dish during Saturday’s Jr. Iron Chef VT competition. (Observer courtesy photo by Tom Waters)

By Ron Maloney

Observer correspondent

Food Network fans are familiar with the plot of Japan’s hit culinary cult classic series, “Iron Chef.”

Wealthy and flamboyant to a fault, “Chairman” Takeshi Kaga has a dream of bringing the world’s top chefs together to experience tastes never known before in Kitchen Stadium, an opulent arena in his castle that is part commercial kitchen and part Roman coliseum.

Celebrity chefs are invited to Kaga’s home to take on one of his four “Iron Chefs” in an hour-long fight to produce the best meal possible in which all dishes must include a special ingredient—often an expensive and exotic one. Those who on rare occasions beat one of Kaga’s in-house masters become honorary Iron Chefs. Those who don’t depart with heads hung low in humiliation.

Saturday, there was no Iron Chef Chen Kinichi and no Bobby Flay and no squid or foie gras. But the competition at Burlington School Food Project and Vermont FEED’s sixth annual Jr. Iron Chef Vermont contest at the Champlain Valley Exposition Hall was no less intense.

There were 72 teams from 55 Vermont schools—including Champlain Valley Union High and Williston Central schools—taking part in a contest to cook and present dishes featuring five or more locally raised ingredients. Recipes had to be “kid friendly”—something a student would be interested in eating—and were judged on their creativity, appearance and taste. Local teams didn’t take home top honors, but winning wasn’t the main idea, anyway, said Vermont FEED’s Libby McDonald, organizer of the event.

Jr. Iron Chef Vermont seeks to connect kids with agriculture—the role farmers play in creating the food they eat—and locally raised and grown ingredients and the ways they can be used in preparing the food everybody eats on a day-to-day basis. The competition promotes the culinary arts and raises awareness about the budgetary challenges facing school food services and the complexities involved in feeding large numbers of students under tight time constraints.

“The goal is awareness building, so it’s really about celebrating local agriculture, farmers, our food service programs and students,” McDonald said. “What’s particularly unique about it is it brings people in all of these different sectors together, including the students.”

For a school kid, that means creating recipes that can be reproduced in a school cafeteria and served to everybody.

Anybody who grew up eating in public school cafeterias with their often-indifferent lunch ladies remembers they weren’t always exactly bastions of culinary innovation or haute cuisine. What many don’t realizes, of course, is the kind of time and budgetary constraints a school lunch program must operate under. It’s not easy to be creative when one must prepare several hundred meals and serve them in 20 minutes. It’s not easy to push the limits of fine dining when so much of the menu depends on U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus bulk ingredients—much of which also finds its way into other institutional settings even less highly regarded for their ingenuity, such as food kitchens, jails and military mess halls.

Today’s school cafeterias are working to broaden their horizons and their menus, increase use of fresh ingredients and improve nutrition as never before. Saturday’s competition, conducted each year, is intended to help move that process forward.

It requires a huge time commitment from all involved, McDonald said. The ingredient list goes out in September, and teams must submit their recipes in November and December to be approved by a panel made up of school foodservice professionals.

“Our committee goes through every recipe to make sure it can be used in a school kitchen, that all of the ingredients they’re using are feasible in that setting,” McDonald said. “Depending on the school, some make compelling arguments about whether their school can replicate a recipe.”

Others, not so much. One year, for example, a team included saffron in its recipe, which costs somewhere north of $100 an ounce.

“Our team got back to them and said, ‘That’s not really replicable,'” McDonald said. “Some things are very beautiful and intricate and a great conversation takes place about whether it could be used in a school kitchen. It’s a really great process when students can call us and say, ‘This can be done and this is how you do it!’ They’re good at instigating change.”

The first year CVU family and consumer science teacher Eleanor Marsh brought a team to Jr. Iron Chef Vermont, they created a gourmet flatbread pizza with a pesto sauce that did place in the contest, and was later served at CVU—with a few modifications.

“For the school cafeteria, it was changed up a little bit,” she said. “I think it was presented as more of a sandwich, but they did give it a shot.”

This year’s teams rose to the challenges and made nice dishes, even if they didn’t take home a prize, Marsh said. Students were not available for comment prior to press deadline.

“This is all about learning, having a really good time and cooking,” Marsh said. “The teams did have a great time!”