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Students put cooking skills to the test in Iron Chef competition

There was no rule against talking during the Iron Chef competition at the Boys & Girls Club of Goshen, but the 10 competitors worked in a feverish silence during the contest Thursday evening, occasionally readjusting their tall, white chef’s hats when they fell over their eyes.

“Normally it’s so loud up here that you can’t hear the P.A. go off, so that was shocking,” said Kwame Reeves, a 16-year-old junior at Concord High School. “I think we were all nervous.”

The 10 contestants, who were evenly separated into “junior” and “teen” divisions, had 15 minutes to create a salad entree and another 15 minutes to make a mini-pie using avocado pudding. The judges graded dishes on fragrance, taste, presentation and overall effectiveness.

“During our lesson times, they weren’t always that quiet,” Minda Clemens, the club’s program services director, said with a laugh. “But I was very proud of them. They seemed like they were ready to get down to business.”

The jittery contestants had no warning of what they would be preparing for the judges. When they entered the kitchen area for the entree round, they found jars filled with lettuce and a number of ingredients to chose from, including summer squash, ground beef, dried berries, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, chicken, croutons, bacon, dry lo mein noodles, grapes and a variety of salad dressings.

“It was interesting, because they looked (at the ingredients) and they remembered to taste things before they piled it in, which was good,” Clemens said. “So I was pretty happy with that, that they were taste-testing before they just kind of added stuff in and figured out what tasted bad.”

Some of the competitors finished with light salads featuring chicken, squash and Italian dressing. Some of the kids went with ground beef and bleu cheese. Some added just about everything to their jars, which were closed and shaken at the end of the round before serving to the judges.

“I was trying to get a meat in it – but not too much meat – and vary the colors,” said Reeves, whose salad included ground beef, noodles and berries topped with a balsamic vinaigrette. “Not too much green and not too much red, switch up the colors.”

Clemens said the contestants were more concerned about the judges’ opinions than who won.

“They were more nervous about what (the judges) would say about their food,” Clemens said. “What would they think? What if it’s no good? What if they don’t like it? And I told them, ‘Oh, it’ll be great,’ but they were very nervous.”

The contestants needn’t have worried. The judging panel was comprised of Adrian Aguilar and Connie Garber, both members of the Goshen Unit Board of Directors, and Brady Sweet, a chef at Rulli’s Italian Restaurant. When it came to commenting on the kids’ food, they were much kinder than Gordon Ramsey and other notoriously harsh chefs many of the competitors had watched on TV.

Although the judges looked a bit dubious before taking bites of the avocado pies, the unusual combinations went over surprisingly well.

“Strangely, I like avocado pudding,” Sweet commented partway through judging the junior division desserts.

Most of the avocado pies featured chocolate chips and decorative pearls, but fifth grader Jatziri Saucedo’s brightly-colored creation stood out from the crowd with a dollop of peanut butter. She shared best dessert honors with Doreen Hernandez, an 11-year-old sixth grader, who balanced the avocado and chocolate chips with cocoa powder and coconut. 

The judges awarded best entree honors to ninth grader Da’Jah Fry and fifth grader Cassandra Romo. The two also won the overall titles for best meals. 

Adrianne Penner, the club’s associate executive director, said the competition was part of an ongoing effort to make kids at the Boys & Girls Club more familiar with their food. In recent months, the club offered classes on cooking and preserving food, visited local restaurants, learned about local crops, harvested food from their own garden and fed nearly 500 guests at a community picnic.

“Over the past year, we’ve completely changed the way we do food at the club,” Penner explained. “We’ve moved from warming up pre-made food to making it from scratch. We’ve tried really hard to make the kids involved from start to finish.”

This was the first solo cooking competition the kids had participated in, but Clemens said some of the older club members are already clamoring for a bigger stage with more complicated assignments and full use of the stove. 

“The teens really want to do an all-out kitchen Iron Chef, and so we’re going to try to make that happen at the end of January, after Christmas-time,” Clemens said. 

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