Hamilton fourth-grader Grace Belanger adjusts a wayward jalapeño atop her “Nacho Ordinary Meatloaf” dishes for the Future Chef competition at Athens. (photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)
No celebrity chefs were in attendance Wednesday night at the Future Chef competition. We should say, no celebrity chefs YET!
But there’s no doubt that out of the 12 Troy elementary students that competed for the top prize in the Athens kitchen and cafeteria, any one of them could be the next Michael Symon, Giada De Laurentiis or Ted Allen.
“This has been an outstanding challenge for the kids; they love it. Every year it gets better and better,” said Director of Food Services and Sodexo General Manager Gayle Moran. “We had 40-some recipes that came in and we narrowed those down to 12 and those students are in here this evening to make their recipes.”
Arriving to a relaxed pizza snack beforehand, the students were briefed on the competition rules and were decked out in their chef’s coats and hats. They then proceeded into the kitchen where, with helpers from school kitchens across the district, they cooked their meals.
“This year, the theme is comfort food,” continued Moran. “The kids just shine; they just love it. That’s what makes me feel really good about it. It’s just wonderful when you see kids that really enjoy it and practice it at home, then make their parents eat it.”
“I’m having fun making this dish because I’m Hungarian,” said Schroder fifth-grader Nina Slaviero who was making “Hungarian Sunset Pasta.”
“Me and my mom made this up,” said Grace Belanger who was making meatloaf muffins or “Nacho Ordinary Meatloaf.” “This is my favorite thing to make at home.”
The kids weren’t too panicked or stressed out by the time. And their professional helpers made sure to oversee their chopping and hot pan handling.
“I’m not just here to win the competition; I’m here to have fun,” said Giadelle Micene, a Morse fourth-grader. “I like to either help my mom or dad make dinner.”
“I’m making stuffed shells, which are like lasagna but in a shell,” said Leonard fourth-grader Bella Colon. “At home I love to bake; I love to cook. I usually help my dad cook dinner because he’s usually the one who teaches me how. I love making mashed potatoes and a lot of other things too. There are so many different, amazing recipes here tonight. I’m looking forward to seeing everything when it’s done. The fact that everyone has all these great ideas is really cool.”
“This is the seventh year we’re doing this in the district,” said Julie Ross of Troy School District Food Services. “Every year is different. This is the biggest variety of recipes we’ve had. Everyone seems to be having a fun time. The kids are always so creative.”
“Usually on Saturday or Sunday mornings, my family makes pancakes and eggs,” said Lindsay Burke, a Wattles fifth-grader as she was finishing making mini breakfast pizzas. “I’ve learned that you can use colors to garnish your dish and it makes it look so much better.”
The scope and size of the kitchen wasn’t lost on the young cooks. “Athens is big. They have a lot of materials and spare ingredients,” said Rishab Sheth who was making “baskets filled with goodies” out of sliced peppers.
Out front, preparations were complete for the judging, done by luminaries from the school district.
“Four years ago I was a guest judge,” said Wass Elementary principal Matt Jansen, who was serving as the evening’s emcee. “Three years ago my daughter was in the program. So I got a chance to observe this as a principal and as a dad.”
As parents, teachers and friends took their seats, Jansen continued, “The neat thing is Troy schools offer so many opportunities to kids: academically, clubs, athletically and now you have something that fits the culinary piece. You never know where this lights a fire or an interest for a hobby or even a career for a kid,” Jansen said. “This is a great opportunity for kids to find another skill or area that they’re interested in.”
Judges walked around the display table, ringed by the chefs looking smart and attentive in their white coats and hats. Sampling each creative dish, they asked questions and listened to comments made by Jansen and the chefs being interviewed.
One by one, they tasted each dish and the broad consensus was it was tough to choose a winner.
In the end, the first place winner was Georgia Mckee — a fourth-grader at Barnard Elementary — for her recipe “Georgia’s Warm Hug Soup.” She went home with the grand prize basket and her recipe will move forward to be judged in the regional finals.
After that, it’s on to the nationals.
Here’s hoping Georgia’s Warm Hug embraces a national trophy very soon!