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William Connor

By Heidi Sutton

Teamwork was the key ingredient at this year’s Junior Iron Chef competition. The annual event, now in its 7th year, was held on March 9 at Whole Foods in Lake Grove. Hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, the one-day cooking challenge, described as “part ‘Chopped,’ part ‘Iron Chef,’ and part ‘Food Network Challenge,’” gave middle and high school students the opportunity to work in groups of three to five to complete a delicious dish of their choosing in under an hour. Fifteen teams from all over Long Island competed this year for the ultimate title of Junior Iron Chef.

“This is an amazing event,” said DJ Anthony Cafaro, from WEHM, who has served as the event’s emcee since its inception. “It’s cool to see some repeat competitors from year’s past and it’s awesome to see a lot of new competitors here,” he said.

The purpose of the event was to encourage budding chefs to learn new cooking skills and lead a healthier lifestyle while promoting the use of local food to support our local farmers and environment. Each team was required to  create a new healthy vegetarian or vegan based recipe that used local ingredients and could be easily implemented into school cafeteria menus.

“This is the seventh year I’ve done this and by far this was the greatest year with the best flavors,” said Cafaro as he tasted all the dishes.

Celebrity chefs Kayla Mitchell and William Connor helped judge the event last Saturday.

Among the 11 judges who graded the dishes based on flavor, health value, creativity and presentation was 14-year-old William Connor from Northport, a past contestant on “Chopped Junior” on the Food Network,  and 13-year-old Kayla Mitchell of Center Moriches who was a contestant on the third season of “MasterChef Junior” on Fox Broadcasting.

High school teams were given a secret ingredient at the last minute, a Sumo Citrus, to incorporate into their dish. Some chose to use the peel, others the juice. While the teams created their dishes, Cafaro kept the ever-growing crowd entertained with fun trivia and giveaways to places like the Long Island Aquarium and concerts.

While the judges deliberated, Executive Chef Jason Keubler and Anthony Cafaro visited each station, tasting each dish and giving feedback to the aspiring chefs. While Cafaro raved over everything that was put in front of him, Keubler gave positive feedback, from “These eggs are spot on,” “Flavors are very balanced,” “Great knife skills,” to pointing out the cleanliness of their workstation and asking them what their greatest obstacle was. “It’s all about teamwork and it shows in your work,” he complimented one team.

First place in the middle school division went to Team G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) from Seneca Middle School in Holbrook. Students Leah Ferraro, Sofia Iacono, Jacqueline Volo and Gianna Scolaro, guided by coach Robert Frontino, won the judges over with their creative Caribbean Breakfast Salad, which was comprised of cinnamon sugared French toast, grilled pineapple and arugula salad with goat cheese, topped with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

“That’s insanely good,” drooled Cafaro as he reached for a napkin. “The cinnamon and the goat cheese go so well together,” agreed Chef Jason. “The color is super vibrant, the spiciness goes with the sweetness with nice textures. Beautiful presentation,” he said adding that he was impressed by how nicely they worked together “just like in a professional kitchen.”

Second place was awarded to The 3 Breakfasteers from Suffolk County 4-H Trailblazers of Yaphank for their Vanilla Fruit Crepes filled with whipped cream and diced strawberries and garnished with blueberries. Corey Burke, Alexis Vladikin, Nora Nemickas and coach Nicole Vickovich made up the team.

The Junior Porters from Greenport Union Free School District grabbed third place for their Mediterranean Breakfast Crepe with an Herbed Whipped Cream. Coached by Katherine Ryan, Rocio Azama, DeShawn Solla, Aleyana Gungar, Ayania Smith and Brynn Dinizio were awarded for their healthy crepe stuffed with baby spinach, sundried tomatoes, black olives and low-fat feta cheese.

Team Almost Master Chef from Sachem North High School in Ronkonkoma captured first place in the high school division. Kaitlyn Seitz, Hailey McKishi, Kayla Salvate and Victoria Corcaran, under the guidance of coach Lindsey Shelhorse, impressed the judges with their Brunch For Lunch Chilaquiles dish featuring homemade tortilla shells topped with fried egg, cheese, onion and cilantro.

Second place was awarded to the Greenport High School’s Bacon Bits – Jhon Ramirez, Tommy Tsaveras, Colin Rossetti, Mateo Arias and Charles Staples – for their Gyro Style Veggie Burger on Whole Wheat Pita, which was served with sautéed onions and tzatziki sauce with a cucumber garnish. The team was coached by Marianne Ladalia.

The Salt Shakers from the Suffolk County 4-H Trailblazers garnered third place. Olivia Unger and Lexington Carrera, under the guidance of coach Adrienne Unger, were given high marks for their crispy Potato Latkes topped with a dollop of sour cream and garnished with chives and scallions.

The Mise en Place (everything in its place) awards were presented to Seneca Middle School’s Taco Bellas (Emma Bollinger, Amanda Madigan, Madeline Turano and Adrianna Sigler with coach Robert Frontino) and Almost Master Chef.

The Public Presentation awards, for the team with the best poster/informational display and judge presentation, were presented to G.O.A.T. and Bacon Bits.

“The kids today were just tremendous,” said Vito Minei, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. “This is truly a Long Island Junior Iron Chef competition with teams coming all the way from Floral Park, Franklin Square and Greenport,” he added. “I want to thank all the parents and families.You should be proud. These kids were fabulous. They all practiced teamwork and each child had an opportunity to shine.”

Brunch for Lunch Chilaquiles 

by Team Almost Top Chef, first place winners in the high school division

Ingredients

Tortilla Shell

10.5 ounces of all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup vegetable oil

7-8 ounces of hot water (110-120F)

Sauce

Diced yellow onion

Diced and seeded jalapeño

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon ground chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3 tablespoons flour

½ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon dried oregano

¼ teaspoon salt, to taste

Pinch of cinnamon

Can of tomato paste

2 cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Filling and Topping Ingredients

Can of drained and rinsed black beans

12 oz. Fiesta Blend Cheese (365 Everyday Value Brand)

3 oz. cotija

Diced red onion

Cilantro

6 Eggs

Directions

 Instructions for sauce

  1. Sauté the diced onion and jalapenos to the pan.
  2. Crush and smash cloves of garlic and salt and add to the onion mixture.  Add the cumin and chili powder.  Add the flour, oregano, garlic powder and salt into a small bowl and place it near the stove.
  3. Add the flour/spice mixture.
  4. While whisking constantly, cook until fragrant and slightly deepened in color, about 1 minute. Whisk the tomato paste into the mixture, then slowly pour in the broth while whisking constantly to remove any lumps.
  5. Raise heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat as necessary to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, whisking often, for about 5 to 7 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat, then whisk in the vinegar and season to taste with a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Add more salt, if necessary.
  7. Stir in the black beans

Instructions for tortillas

To make the dough: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Pour in the lesser amount of hot water (plus the oil, if you’re using it), and stir briskly with a fork or whisk to bring the dough together into a shaggy dough.Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead briefly, just until the dough forms a ball. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Round the pieces into balls, flatten slightly, and allow them to rest, covered, for about 15 minutes.  Preheat ungreased cast iron griddle or skillet over medium high heat, about 400°F. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll into a round about 8″ in diameter. Keep the remaining dough covered while you work. Fry the tortilla in the ungreased pan for about 30 seconds on each side. Then cut into wedges and fry them and add salt to taste.

Assembling

Fry the eggs. Layer the fried tortilla shell with spoonful of sauce and cheese.  Top with the fried egg, more cheese, dice red onion and cilantro.

Caribbean Breakfast Salad

By Team G.O.A.T., first place winners in the middle school division

Ingredients

16 oz of arugula

8 oz of goat cheese

2 boxes of raspberries (7 oz. each)

1 pineapple

1 loaf challah bread

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp Dijon mustard

1/4 tsp. oregano

1/4 cup white vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup white sugar

1/4 cinnamon

4 eggs

2 tbsp honey

Directions

Challah French Toast

Preheat skillet to 350 degrees. Mix eggs in large bowl. In a separate bowl mix sugars and cinnamon. Dip the challah bread slices into egg mixture and then the sugar blend. Cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes.

Arugula Salad

Mix oil, vinegar, honey and mustard and whip until blended. Strain the raspberries. Add raspberry juice to oil mixture until smooth to taste. Toss arugula, whole raspberries and cheese together with liquid dressing.

Pineapple

Cut outside skin of pineapple. Cut one inch horizontal slices. Dip in sugar mixture. Grill on both sides for 2 to 3 minutes.

All photos by Heidi Sutton

By Kevin Redding

Students from across Long Island donned their aprons and unleashed their inner Bobby Flay’s and Julia Child’s last Saturday for a chance to win big at the fifth annual Junior Iron Chef competition at Whole Foods in Lake Grove.

Set up like a high-stakes Food Network show, middle and high school students from various Suffolk and Nassau County school districts treated the cafeteria section of Whole Foods as their cooking arena, with each team of three to five young chefs chopping and sauteing their ingredients, divvying up their tasks in an assembly line of excitement and nerves in their attempt to beat the clock.

WEHM DJ Anthony Cafaro tastes Team Wholly Guacamole’s dish titled Avocado’s dish. Photo by Kevin Redding

As a group of judges surveyed each workstation and breakfast and lunch foods sizzled in the pans, a large crowd of supportive parents, grandparents, siblings and strangers cheered on their team of choice. All the while, DJ Anthony Cafaro, from WEHM, served as the event’s emcee, interviewing the chefs at work and taste-testing each team’s dish. “Oh my God, that’s really good,” Cafaro said as he took a bite of a middle school team’s Breakfast Sushi, a crepe packed with strawberry filling and bananas and served with chopsticks. “You know what, you can’t really tell from the first bite,” he winked as he ate some more.

Hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, the one-day event, described as “part ‘Chopped,’ part ‘Iron Chef,’ and part ‘Food Network Challenge,’” gives middle and high school students the opportunity to work together to complete a recipe of their choosing in under an hour.

As per tradition, the friendly competition also encourages healthier food options by eliminating certain ingredients like meat, fish or nuts and challenging the young chefs to create new healthy vegetarian or vegan-based recipes, including United States Department of Agriculture commodity foods like beans, grains, fruits and vegetables, that use local ingredients provided by Whole Foods and could be easily implemented into school cafeteria menus.

A team from Sewanhaka High School prepares a dish during the competition. Photo by Kevin Redding

According to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth Development Director Vicki Fleming, who helped get the event off the ground seven years ago, “If you handed a salad to a kid they might not eat it, but if they make it, it might entice them to try it.” Fleming said she got the idea for the event from a similar junior chef competition that’s been taking place in Vermont for more than 10 years. When Gary Graybosch, prepared foods team leader at Whole Foods, took his department on an educational field trip to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank, members of the organization said they expressed an interest in holding such an event but were unable to find the proper location. It didn’t take long before Graybosch volunteered the cafe section of the store.

“This is great for the community, the kids love it and the parents love it,” Graybosch said. “It teaches the kids how to work together and teaches them how to communicate because they’re not just texting each other, they actually have to speak [to each other] when they’re cooking, so it’s good.”

The 13 middle school teams that competed in the first competition round had to create a breakfast dish while the eight high school teams in the second round had to concoct a lunch dish and implement the event’s mystery ingredient — raspberries — revealed on the day of the event by Graybosch. Elementary school students set up their own tables of treats and smoothies around the store as well. Cafaro, who’s emceed the event since it started, said after the first year he told the organization he’d “do this forever.”

“It’s so great, the kids are unbelievable, they’re doing stuff I can’t even do, and the pro chefs they have as judges are even blown away by some of the skill and levels of talent they have,” he said. “When we started this, there was no real big kid competitions and now there are so many of them — it’s kind of blowing up.”

The judges take some notes as they make their rounds in the cooking arena. Photo by Kevin Redding

Among the 12 judges who graded the dishes based on flavor, health value, creativity and presentation was 14-year-old William Connor from Northport, a contestant on “Chopped Junior” this past fall, and 13-year-old Kayla Mitchell of Center Moriches who was a contestant on the third season of “MasterChef Junior.”

Seneca Middle School’s team Super Fresh Breakfast Boyz from Holbrook won first place for the middle schools for the second year in a row for their Guacamole Sunrise Stack. Students Andrew Battelli, John Durkin, Dom Strebel, Nick Strebel and Hunter Ziems and coach Mary Faller made up the team. Despite a griddle shutting off in the middle of the competition,  Durkin said he and his team were able to persevere. “We had to work together to get through that and we managed to come together and cook it and it came out good,” he said. “[The experience] was very fun overall. We met up and practiced from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. every morning before school for about a month and  half.”

Wholly Guacamole from Sagamore Middle School took second place. Students Molly Grow, Sydney Harmon, Emily Mangan, Sara Ann Mauro, Abigail Weiss, guided by coach Lindsey Shelhorse, won the judges over as runners up with their Avocado’s Nest.

Cow Harbor 4-H Club’s Original French Toasters also grabbed third place with their Banana French Toast with Fruit Syrup. Coached by Kim Gulemi, students Emily Brunkard, Jolie Fay, Ally Gulemi, Alexa Meinen and Stephanie Stegner were awarded for their blend of blueberries, strawberries, syrup and whipped cream.

The Tiger Lilies of Little Flower in Wading River took first place for the high schools for the second year in a row. Coached by  Jennifer Quinlan, students Gianna D’arcangelo, Russell Diener and Alex Mora won with their Lentil Quinoa Kale Broth Bowl. The dish featured a blend of onion, garlic, celery, carrots and tomatoes.

From H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, the Red Hot Chili Peppers secured the second place spot with their Vegetarian Chili. Students Lynn Abby M. Bigord, Akira Jordan, Isabella Legovich and coach Alexandra Andrade made up the team.

Coming in third place were Babylon High School’s BHS Foodies, the ultimate competition underdogs, with their Lentil Shepherd’s Pie. Consisting of Sean Cosgro, Emilie Leibstein, Sophia Levine-Aquino, Hayley Swaine and coach Jenna Schwartz, the team showed up not realizing they had to bring their own equipment. So they approached Graybosch and asked if they could borrow “a pot, pan, chef knife, peeler, and pretty much everything,” according to Cosgro. “We felt so unprepared and so we were so surprised that we placed,” Cosgro said. “I made a lot of ‘Rocky’ references to my group the entire time, saying ‘I feel like we’re the complete underdogs, we’re sort of inexperienced, and this’ll be our ‘Rocky’ moment if we win.’”

William Connor in his favorite room in the house — the kitchen. Photo from Amy Connor

By Rita J. Egan

Back in April, Northport Middle School student William Connor participated in the show “Chopped Junior,” and when it came to the outcome, he had to keep it a secret until the Food Network broadcasted the episode on Oct. 25. Turns out the local junior chef made it all the way to the dessert round before being eliminated. In the episode, titled “Snapper Snafus,” William and three other contestants were judged by a panel that included Danica Patrick, Jamika Pessoa and Scott Conant. Ted Allen was the host.

On the night of Oct. 25, William said his parents held a big party. He said on hand were his parents, Amy and Gene, siblings, James and Sarah, as well as his grandparents, friends, teachers and the two chefs, Rob Thall and Michael Roberts, who helped him train for the show. His parents also recorded the show. “I’m glad we taped it, though, because sometimes people were cheering so loud that I missed part of what happened,” he said. The 13-year-old admitted he was nervous, because even though William knew what happened, he was curious to see how it was edited and what the result would look like. “It was interesting to see the way they edited it, which was really awesome.  I was extremely proud of going on the show and making it that far and getting to show the skills I have in culinary,” he said.

After the network aired the show, William said he received many compliments from family and friends. “And everyone said they wanted to eat my curry ice cream,” he said. When he was at school the next day, in addition to receiving congratulations, someone gave him a note signed by 20 people, many he knew and a few he didn’t from different grades. He said it read, “Great job. We all watched you on ‘Chopped Junior,’ and you really inspired us.”

Now that the show has aired, William, who admitted he had hoped he would make it at least past the appetizers round, can talk about what went on during taping. “There was one time when Scott Conant said he didn’t know what a cheese ball was, so the next day I had to go back to film some more commentary stuff, and I brought him a cheese ball.  I didn’t get to see his reaction because we were in two different studios that day, but they told me he liked it,” he said. William also said that during the entrée round he had trouble finding basil leaves due to another contestant using all of them. He spotted another type of leaf, smelled it, realized it was mint and decided to use it for his pesto. “The judges loved it. They thought it was very creative of me,” he said. The future professional chef also said he was proud that he received positive feedback about his ice cream. “Ted Allen wanted to taste it, which he never does,” he said.

While William is back to life as normal, with school and Boy Scouts, he has kept in touch with one of his competitors. “I’ve been in touch with Taylor, who got cut first — I think we got the closest.  We’ve been trying to get together but she lives in the city so it can be kind of hard.  She wants to be a chef too, so maybe we’ll be in culinary school together,” he said.

William’s appearance on the show has turned into a great learning experience for the Northport resident. “I think it really actually transformed me into the chef I am at this moment. I mean, it made me realize that I’m not perfect, nobody is perfect, and I still have a lot to learn.”

WHAT’S COOKIN’? William Connor serves up a salmon burger with a cucumber-mango-tomato salsa on the side. Photo from Amy Connor

By Rita J. Egan

He’s only 13, but William Connor of Northport is already getting a taste of his dreams. In April, the aspiring chef competed on the Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” in an episode that will air on Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.

“Chopped Junior,” the show based on the network’s hit “Chopped,” features four young cooks who work with predetermined main ingredients presented in a basket to create an appetizer, entrée or dessert in 30 minutes or less, and each round a contestant is eliminated. In the Oct. 25 episode, titled “Snapper Snafus,” William and three other contestants will be judged by a panel that includes Danika Patrick, Jamika Pessoa and Scott Conant. According to the online description, the episode will feature appetizers made with duck and some wild-flavored cupcakes in the first round, snapper in the second round and a playful pie and a tart surprise for the dessert dishes.

Until the episode airs, William can’t discuss the outcome or specifics about being on the set; however, during a recent interview, the eighth-grader at Northport Middle School talked about his love of cooking and what he could about his television experience. The 13-year-old said he developed a love for cooking a number of years ago. “One day when I was about seven, my mom was cooking dinner, and I came in and asked her, ‘What’s for dinner?’ She said, ‘Pasta.’ I was like, ‘Can I help?’” William said. “For the rest of the week I helped her, learning different techniques, and then two years later I started cooking by myself in the kitchen.”

The young chef, who said curried chickpeas with tofu is one of his favorite dishes, likes to cook once a week for his family, which in addition to his mom Amy includes his dad Gene, twin brother James and sister Sarah. During this past summer, he was able to cook for them more often, except, he said, “One week when I was at Boy Scout Camp, I was itching to cook.” William said during both the first and second seasons of “Chopped Junior” he asked to audition for the show but his mother said no. He asked again between the second and third seasons, and she finally said yes. “Third time’s the charm,” he said.

When he first asked, his mother felt William was too young to compete. “I knew he loved to cook, and he was really young. I was afraid you go onto something like this that is so high pressure, and there are these people who are authorities at what you want to do, and they tell you that you’re not good enough; they cut you or they tell you what you did wrong,” she said. “Or, they say this didn’t taste good or this didn’t work. And I thought it could really kill that in him and make him turn away from something that he really loved doing.” This year she realized his love of cooking was strong enough to survive criticism. So they filled out the online application to be on the show and uploaded a video on YouTube for the producers to view.

William said he found out he made the cut to appear on “Chopped Junior” when he came home from school one day and his mother gave him a honing steel (for sharpening knives) wrapped in a gift bag. At first, William said he wondered why she gave it to him. “And then, it clicked in my mind, and I literally, from one side of the house to the other, I literally ran and slid on the floor, screaming the whole time in happiness!” he laughed.

To prepare for the show William said he worked with two chefs, his Boy Scout leader, Rob Thall, and his consumer sciences teacher, Michael Roberts, but he couldn’t tell them why. He also watched cooking shows and viewed a number of videos on YouTube to master knife skills and learn other helpful techniques from noted cooking professionals, including his favorites Guy Fieri and Jamie Oliver. Every day his mother gave him a basket of four ingredients so he could practice cooking a dish in half an hour. At first, he said it would take him more than 30 minutes, but little by little, he started cutting down on his time. “By the end I was making it in at least 25 minutes,” he said.

William admitted it was frustrating for him to try to cook in such a short period, at first. “In the middle of it, one time, I thought I wouldn’t do it, so I just literally walked out of my house and just sat on my front porch,” he said. The teen chef said once on the set, he and the other contestants toured the kitchen area so they could familiarize themselves with where everything was. However, William had watched the show closely and not only learned from past contestants mistakes but also he said, “I memorized where everything was by just watching it.” He said many times the mystery ingredients can be something unusual such as gummy worms, but William explained in addition to these, the competing junior cooks can also use spices and basic food items such as pasta, vegetables and meats from the pantry.

Despite participating in the television show, William doesn’t dream of being an on-screen chef. “I see myself cooking and not just glamour cooking. I see myself actually cooking in the heat of the kitchen and everything, and not just showing how to cook,” he said. The aspiring chef hopes to one day attend The Culinary Institute of America and obtain his culinary degree. After college, his recipe for success includes working for a few years in a kitchen, and he said he would love to work in a local restaurant such as his favorite, Tim’s Shipwreck Diner in Northport. William also hopes to open his own restaurant one day. “The restaurant is actually in a barn, and I live in the farmhouse, and all the ingredients are based around the harvest,” he said.

When it comes to advice for junior cooks, William believes in practice makes perfect. “When you want to start, just start helping whoever cooks in the house, and eventually you’ll get up to the point where you can start trying different flavors and trying different things and cooking different recipes that you want to try and cook. And, eventually you’ll start soloing in the kitchen.”

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