The sounds of slicing, stirring and sauteing filled Oak Harbor High School’s culinary classroom last weekend, but on this day, much younger students than usual were the ones cooking up tasty creations.
Six students from Oak Harbor Intermediate School competed against each other in the Future Chefs National Challenge to see who could prepare the best vegetable or fruit-based side dish.
Melissa Miller, Food Service director for the school district, said that this is the first time the district has participated in the competition. It is hosted by Sodexo, the company that manages food service for the district and hosts the competition in schools nationwide.
“It’s just to get the younger kids more engaged and expand their taste buds,” Miller said.
This year, contestants had to make a fruit or vegetable side dish that followed nutritional guidelines set by the USDA – such as being low in sodium and sugar – and therefore suitable to be served in the schools’ cafeterias.
Fifth and sixth graders from Oak Harbor Intermediate submitted recipes for their dishes online. The recipes had to follow the nutritional guidelines and needed to include the step-by-step process for preparing the dish. Fourteen kids in total submitted recipes, Miller said. She selected the six that met all requirements.
A week before the competition took place, the six finalists underwent a boot camp to learn how to properly cook in the professional-grade kitchen at the high school.
“It’s pretty unique that kids will have access to this,” Miller said.
On the morning of the competition, each finalist was assisted by a culinary student from the high school to help them prepare 60 servings of their dishes.
Decked out in white chef coats and hats, the kids began working at 8:30 a.m. and had to finish up by noon. Many of the dishes took a creative spin on the healthy requirements.
Preston Huessman prepared “Preston’s Pizza Salad.”
“Basically, it combines the worlds of healthy and unhealthy,” he said. “So that way, when people who are on a diet want to eat pizza, they can eat pizza.”
Huessman admitted he had never attempted the dish or even eaten it, but said he thought it would be interesting to try something new.
Olivia Penley made a sweet potato dish. The potatoes were roasted with a mix of brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and topped with melted marshmallows, she explained.
“I like cooking and I wanted to be with other cooks and try to win,” Penley said about why she entered the competition.
She said she’s been cooking for about two years and she practices with her mom a lot, although she is primarily a baker. Penley said she enjoyed having a sous chef and getting to know other people.
“This is really fun for me,” she said.
Alex Wutzke prepared avocado fries with sriracha dip. She shared the process of making the alternative to regular French fries. She sliced avocados, seasoned them with salt and pepper, then breaded them with flour, egg and panko breadcrumbs.
Even though Wutzke had never made 60 servings of food before, she didn’t feel overwhelmed as she felt she had plenty of time in the allotted three and a half hours.
“It just feels nice being in the kitchen and making people food,” she said.
Seven judges voted on the dishes based on seven different criteria: healthy attributes, kid appeal, ease of preparation, originality, plate presentation, taste and presentation.
After all the dishes were plated, parents and the judges gathered to try all of the food. The judges, who included former culinary students, Superintendent Michelle Kuss-Cybula and School Board President Lynn Goebel, took their time voting. It was clearly a tough decision.
In the end, Wutzke’s avocado fries took first place, Madilyn’s Jones’ seared Brussels sprouts took second place and Penley’s baked sweet potato dish took third.
Wutzke’s dish will be submitted to the next round of the competition. If the dish is selected as a regional winner, she will have a chance to be crowned the national winner of the Future Chefs Challenge. The winning dish will be added to the Sodexo menu for schools across the country to use.