For my blog this week I want to do something a little bit different and share a story. A story about a fierce competition we have in Vermont called Jr. Iron Chef.
Jr. Iron Chef VT is “a statewide culinary competition that challenges teams of middle and high school students to create healthy, local dishes that inspire school meal programs.”1 Teams of three to five students have ninety minutes to prepare a dish of their design and wow a diverse panel of judges who critique not only the taste and appearance of the final dish, but the professionalism and teamwork exhibited during the cooking process. Leading up to the competition, teams spend hours practicing under the guidance of their coaches who range from teachers and afterschool educators to school food service workers and professional chefs.
Back in late January I became the coach of a Jr. Iron Chef team, one made up of a handful of high school-aged culinary superstars. I’ve known these kids since the summer when they worked on our Fork in the Road food truck. Recently they’ve all been volunteering once a week at our local food shelf to help prepare meals. And since January they’ve added Jr. Iron Chef meetings to their weekly schedule—two intense hours of practicing preparing our dish, Tofu Tikka Masala with Homemade Paneer and Toasted Pita.
Our team has cooked and re-cooked this dish what feels like countless times, each week further honing the flavor and perfecting both execution and presentation. Adding that extra tablespoon of lemon juice to the paneer to get just the right tang. Cycling through different varieties of peppers until we nailed the desired heat in our dish. Figuring out if we should be dicing or cubing our sweet potato. Plating all our ingredients one way, then another way, then yet another way… tweaking the placement of that toasted pita so it leans at the perfect angle against the sauté topped rice.
And this past Saturday, we finally put all our hard work to the test as we joined over fifty other teams at the Champlain Valley Expo Center for the 10th annual Jr. Iron Chef VT competition.
Donning brand new chef coats, battered Fork in the Road baseball hats, and crisp white aprons, our team arrived just as awards were being doled out for the AM heat (there’s not enough space at the Expo Center for all teams to compete at once). At 12 o’clock sharp the giant corral that encloses the competition space was opened; we found our assigned table, efficiently set up our cooking station, passed our Brigade Check with flying colors, then eagerly waited for the cook-off to start.
And from the second the allotted ninety minutes began, our team performed with such professionalism and confidence that I am still in awe. There was just no stopping them—it was as if they had transcended some plane of existence. These kids worked with a precision, dedication and passion I have rarely seen in adults, yet alone youth. It’s hard to describe those ninety minutes as anything other than inspiring.
As we raised our green flag to signal we were done cooking and ready to have our samples delivered to the Judges Room, everyone on the team was beaming. We all knew something special had just happen. At that point, it truly didn’t matter if the team won any awards—in fact, for these kids it was never about that, they just love cooking together that much. And what they had just done during the competition was one of the purest expressions of love—for cooking and for each other—that I have ever seen.
That being said, our Fork in the Road team did win an award: Mise en Place, which goes to “the team that shows exemplary teamwork, order and professionalism.”2