Remember those budding young chefs from Mount Abraham Union Middle-High School we featured in the March "Mealtime" column
? This past weekend, they traveled to Essex Junction's Champlain Valley Expo for the big event: the 2014 Jr Iron Chef Vermont competition.
After months of after-school culinary practice in the Mt. Abe kitchen, the kids finally put their knife skills, recipe development, teamwork and problem-solving abilities to the test, going head to head — and skillet to skillet — with 63 middle and high school teams from every corner of the state.
I've never thought of cooking as a spectator sport — until I stepped into the Expo event hall. What a feast for the senses! Parents, friends and foodies milled around a central corral where teams of 4 or 5 students sliced, diced, mixed and sauteed at plastic-covered tables. Energetic house music, spun by a local DJ, pulsed from the speakers. Overhead, colorful banners promoted the stars of this show — Apple! Beet! Turnip! Egg! — while food aromas wafted through the air.
Jr Iron Chef is a team sport, and schools showed their unity with colorful uniforms. The two Mt. Abe teams – one from the middle school and one from the high school – sported classy, black chef coats plus black bandanas printed with bright peppers. Like the other teams, they worked diligently for their allotted 90 minutes to create and plate original recipes.
Mt. Abe's high school team (Walker and His Texas Rangers) endured a tense moment during the competition: The kids realized they'd forgotten the baking pan for their Confetti Spaghetti Casserole (click here for the recipe)
. They made do with a replacement, which their coach hurriedly purchased from a nearby Hannaford, successfully recalculating cooking times and knife cuts to fit the new pan's dimensions.
Team JEAPs — the Mt. Abe middle schoolers — made broccoli-pesto torticotti with white-bean salsa (click here for the recipe)
. “It tasted really good!” team member Emily Aldrich said proudly after delivering plated samples to the judges, who included Eric Warnstedt, chef/owner of Hen of the Wood, John Patrick from The Farm Between, and former governor Madeleine Kunin.
During the competition the clipboard-wielding judges roamed the hall, observing the teams in action. They evaluated teamwork and communication during the cooking process, as well as the taste, texture and visual appeal of each team's final plated dish.
In the end, the Mt. Abe kids didn't bring home any awards. But that didn't get them down. “It's not about winning," said their coach, Kathy Alexander. "It's just about being here.”
For a list of winners, and additional information about the competition, visit jrironchefvt.org.