PUTNEY—Squash pancakes, shepherd’s pie, bruschetta, quinoa, lasagna, and gnocchi.
Windham County middle and high school students dished this out and more when they squared off against their counterparts from school districts across the state at the sixth annual Junior Iron Chef Vermont competition, held Feb. 2 in Essex Junction.
Historically, the Twin Valley teams have dominated the competition, winning 10 titles in six years. This year, the Dipsters middle school team won Best in Show for the morning heat, and high school teams Zeman’s Zing Zangs and the J-Lee Quinwonkers picked up the Lively Local award and Best in Show, respectively, in the afternoon heat.
Junior Iron Chef Vermont aims to highlight local agriculture, promote the culinary arts, and raise awareness of local school food systems' complexity.
This year the event was held at the Blue Ribbon Pavilion at the Champlain Valley Exposition.
According to Lonny Paige, coach of several teams at Twin Valley, teams choose recipes based on the dishes they would want to eat.
“Then we incorporate local ingredients. Some recipes start and end the same way; some completely evolve into something else. I always tell the students, Kids, if you don’t like [your dish], you’re not going to win,” Paige said.
Entries are judged on kid-friendliness of taste, presentation, creativity, quantity and quality of local ingredients, and their nutrition and cost-effectiveness.
Teams have 90 minutes to complete their dish. Middle and high school teams are divided into different heats held in the morning and afternoon.
In each heat, an award is given out for Best in Show, which incorporates taste and color of the dish, and the “Lively Local Award,” highlighting Vermont foods.
Although the judges hail from many different professions, each plays a role in the school meal chain, from the farmer who grows the ingredients to the local politician who ensures the meals' quality.
Local schools represent
Windham County was strongly represented at the competition, fielding nine teams from Putney Central, Leland & Gray, Guilford Central, Westminster Center, and Twin Valley middle schools.
Twin Valley High School sent three teams, the maximum allowed; Brattleboro Union High School sent one.
Putney Central School's three teams worked since October to create the perfect dish with which to compete against the 75 other teams at the competition.
One team, the Putney Miso Masters (composed of all sixth-graders), prepared a miso soup.
According to Miso Master Kai Hammond, the biggest challenge was learning how to cut the ingredients properly, as presentation is essential when plating an intricate, thin slice of carrot wrapped artfully around a matchstick-sized slice of apple.
“It took us a really long time just to figure out our recipe,” said another Miso Master. “We ended up doubling the amount of stuff in the soup [compared to the amount of broth] from our original recipe.”
Paige attributes at least some of this success to the strong interest Windham County students show in food sourcing and cooking: More students wanted to participate than the rules allowed teams to field, so Twin Valley held its own cook-off to determine which teams would compete at Essex Junction.
Getting it just right
The week before the competition, Putney Central School's teams held a tasting to practice preparing dishes.
And the food was good. Louise Garfield, a Putney resident and school volunteer, said she couldn’t help but go back for seconds.
“It’s really amazing to see them so proud and using such adult ingredients, like tofu,” she said.
Perhaps the only folks prouder of these students' work than themselves and their families are their coaches.
Kerri Harlow, Putney Central School kitchen manager and Crazy Flapjacks team coach, said she was frankly overwhelmed with work and was reluctant to take on responsibility for a team when asked last year.
“But I really never had more fun. When you start, the students don’t really know what they’re doing, but by three or four weeks in, they’re doing everything themselves. The students who stick with it are the ones who really enjoy it. I couldn’t wait to do it again this year, it’s so fun and rewarding for coaches and students,” she said.
Rising to the occasion
According to Paige, students enthusiastically respond to the competitive aspect of the program.
“The Junior Iron Chef competition is a phenomenal concept from top to bottom in that it attempts to get food into schools that kids like, and tries to get kids to cook with vegetables that they’ve never heard of before,” he said.
“We want to introduce kids to great healthy foods that have great flavor, and the way we do it is through competition. A lot of schools I know kind of frown on the competition, [dismissing it as] 'Let’s all group hug.’”
While he appreciates that sentiment, Paige said he believes that, if you want kids to really become passionate about their food, competition is a great motivator.
“[Our teams do well] not because the students are totally into food, it’s because they’re into winning.”
Although the Twin Valley teams were the only ones to receive awards from among Windham County's entrants, all else was not lost.
“None of our teams placed, but it’s almost beside the point, because it’s so competitive that when you’re going, you’re just going to do it,” said Kristina Israel, a coach for one of teams from Putney Central School.
“We got great comments from the judges and we’re really proud of [the students].”
All proceeds from the event directly support Vermont FEED and the Burlington School Food Project.