Local students took Whole Foods in Lake Grove by storm as they chopped, sauteed and cooked their morning away for a chance at the top spot at last Saturday’s fourth annual Junior Iron Chef competition.
Suffolk County Cornell Cooperative Extension hosted the one-day event where middle and high school students showed off their cooking skills in groups of three to five. Twenty-four teams from schools and other organizations had one hour to cook a vegetarian or vegan-based dish that they could incorporate in their school cafeteria menu.
The teams had a few weeks to plan and prepare a dish using five main ingredients, two of which had to be United States Department of Agriculture commodity foods. (Various beans, grains, fruits and vegetables are USDA commodity foods, which make up part of school cafeteria menus.) The recipes could not be desserts or include meat, fish or nuts.
The middle school team’s challenge this year was to create a breakfast dish while the high school teams were required to include a mystery ingredient in their dishes that was revealed on the day of the competition. DJ Anthony from WEHM emceed the event.
Twelve judges, including 12-year-old Kayla Mitchell of Center Moriches who was a former contestant on MasterChef Junior Season 3, walked from one station to the next, speaking with the teams before deciding their fate in the competition.
While the event gives kids the opportunity to enhance their cooking skills, it also helps educate the students and those around them about healthy eating.
“We want to help them make connections to healthy eating and how to help with their schools better so there’s a little community service in there,” said Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Director Victoria Fleming.
Fleming discovered the idea six years ago. The competition started in Vermont and has been an annual event for around 10 years. According to Gary Graybosch, who runs the kitchen at Whole Foods, the competition extends beyond Long Island as a variety of schools and organizations are invited. Whole Foods got on board to hold the competition at its Lake Grove location after Graybosch and several of his employees toured the Suffolk County farm in Yaphank.
The judges didn’t simply critique the dishes based on taste, creativity and presentation. They also examined the groups’ use of local foods and USDA food, the dish’s health value and readiness for a school cafeteria.
Seneca Middle School’s team Super Fresh from Holbrook won the title for the middle schools with its Super Fresh Healthy Egg and Potato. Students John Durkin, Andrew Battelli and Hunter Ziems and team coach Mary Faller made up the team.
The Chef Masters from Oakdale Bohemia Middle School in Oakdale took second place. Students Charles Ryder, Vanessa Villatoro and Abby Frances, guided by coach Judy Jones, won the judges over as runners up with their South West Breakfast Quesadilla.
Seneca Middle School also grabbed third place with the Kings of the Kitchen’s Kings Breakfast Burrito. Coached by Mary Faller, Dom Strebel, Nick Strebel, Tobi Green, Steven Salica and Nick Zariello received praise for their sauteed potatoes, which were mixed with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggs and cheese.
“We had a few other ideas [but] we looked more into it and saw … that [the breakfast burrito] was the best one to do,” Nick Zariello said about his team’s dish of choice. “It was just a lot of fun.” Nick added that the team practiced daily during lunch periods and after school to prepare for the competition.
The Tiger Lilies of Little Flower in Wading River took first place of the high school teams. Coached by Jennifer Quinlan, teammates Alex Moa, Russel Denner, Charleen Thompson and Briana Ivory stole the competition with their Thai Coconut Curry Noodle Bowl. The dish featured whole wheat spaghetti, various vegetables and a coconut curry sauce with a kick.
High school team La Banda from Greenport Schools was thrown a curve ball during the competition with the secret ingredient, but still secured second place. Richard Torres Galicia, Walfred Gatica, Antonio Coria, Antonio Anderson and Leo Torres made Wrapped Italian Black Bean Burgers with Garlic Parmesan Sauce. The group, coached by Marianne Ladalia, worked their secret ingredient, mango, into their dish as a side.
“It was an intense atmosphere at first. We didn’t know what to do at the beginning but after time we got used to it,” Torres Galicia said. “We communicated as one team and then we came out with a good dish.”
While some young cooks look up to prominent chefs, the middle school team The Savory Blazers — Sophia Chinea, Lexington Carerra and Adrianna Cantu, coached by Michell Chinea — who are members of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Trailblazers 4-H program, draw their inspiration from role models who are closer to home. Group member Sophia said she admires her aunt’s cooking and baking and added that she “always wanted to be like her when [she grew] up.”
Fellow teammate Adrianna said it can be difficult to decide on a role model. “There’s so many people that are good at making food . . . You might find a new person every single day.”
Although Fleming organizes the competition with Whole Foods every year, these young chefs never fail to surprise her. “I’m so amazed to be working with all these amazing kids that … have learned these skills and are able to demonstrate them in front of a large group like this,” Fleming said. “So it’s very inspiring to me to do this every year.”