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.
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.
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.”
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.’”