Making Culinary Magic

Sixth-grader Lucy Peterkin from Kiewit Middle School dices up a mango for a mango salsa, which accompanied her Tomato and Avocado Quesadillas. Her recipe won the Top Appetizer prize.

Sixth-grader Lucy Peterkin from Kiewit Middle School dices up a mango for a mango salsa, which accompanied her Tomato and Avocado Quesadillas. Her recipe won the Top Appetizer prize.

 

Students Discover the Joy of Cooking Through Friendly Competition
Story and Photography By Emily Beck

On the second day of April, 16 middle school students rushed about the kitchen of Millard South High School in a flurry of organized chaos. The light overhead glinted off the surfaces of knives and shiny steel pans as voices called across the room, each student looking sharp in his or her black chef jacket and hat.
 
It was a fast-paced afternoon of hairnets, garnishes and friendly food competition—it was the fourth annual Middle School Magic Meal Competition. This year’s theme was “Magic of Nutrition,” and six Millard middle school teams—from Kiewit, North, Russell, Andersen, Central and Beadle—had the chance to show off their culinary skills. The competition, sponsored by Sodexo, which provides food services to Millard Public Schools, was focused on healthy eating. The goal was to introduce healthy meal planning and preparation to middle school students. 
 
Invitations were sent to each middle school several weeks before the competition. Students had the opportunity to
submit healthy recipes with which they hoped to compete. Some created or searched for their own recipes, while others used recipes inspired by family dishes. 
 
Sixth-graders submitted appetizer recipes, seventh-graders submitted side dishes and eighth-graders submitted entrees. “Of all the submissions from each school, we narrow it down to just one kid from each grade, and then that forms that team for that school,” said Justin Wiley, food service director for Millard Public Schools. Six total teams were formed.
 
On the day of the event, students participated in a kitchen training session and safety demonstrations. Each team was assigned kitchen helpers, who were responsible for handling any tasks too advanced for the middle school students (for example, carrying heavy pans or handling ovens). They also helped each team get organized, since preparing all of the dishes was such a large job to tackle. The assistants included culinary students from the Millard Culinary Academy, as well as members of the Millard Public Schools kitchen staff.

As the clock neared 5:30 that evening, the pressure in the kitchen heightened, and it seemed to grow louder and smaller as each team rushed to perfect the presentation of each dish. The professionalism was astounding; each plate had a garnish, and could have rivaled dishes found at high-end restaurants. The judging began at 5:30pm. The six judges dined with each team family style, inquiring about the inspiration for each dish as parents and photographers hovered nearby. Each young chef looked nervous. Not only did the competitors have to whip up an impressive dish in an hour, but they also had to engage in conversation with a panel of judges who held the power to determine their fate! The pressure eased off, however, when each middle school student had the chance to shine for the judges, who were genuinely interested in their interests and aspirations.

A table was set up for each team. After the judges had a chance to sample each dish, they moved to the next table. The panel featured a mixture of community and board members, including John Oakey of Channel 7 News and Millard Public Schools board member Linda Poole. 

The judges based their scores on taste, appearance and originality. Many dishes exhibited creativity, such as the East Meets West Baked Chicken Wings, an entrée submitted by eighth-grader Jessica Steckelberg from Central Middle School. It featured a homemade barbecue sauce (the West) and a curry sauce (the East).

“This has gone so smoothly this year,” said Edrie Pearce, food service supervisor. She and several others were responsible for sending the invitations to each middle school, selecting the winning recipes and shopping for the food. The entire planning process takes around six weeks each year, according to Justin. “I think it’s a great opportunity for kids … a lot of kids are interested in food, and this is a wonderful place to develop their skills and have some friendly competition,” Edrie said.

Seventh-grader Kacie Shields from Russell Middle School was excited to partake in the competition. Her dish, Mexican Black Bean and Hominy Salad, was inspired by her father. According to her mom, Lisa Shields, Kacie wants to someday own a bakery or host her own cooking show. “I think it’s great they’re learning about cooking healthy and eating healthy,” she said. For now, Kacie is in it simply for the love of it. “I just like cooking,” she said. “I think it’s fun.”

Sixth-grader Lucy Peterkin’s Tomato and Avocado Quesadillas with Mango Salsa won the Top Appetizer prize.

Sixth-grader Lucy Peterkin’s Tomato and Avocado Quesadillas with Mango Salsa won the Top Appetizer prize.

In the end, Kiewit Middle School took the top prize. The team’s appetizer, Tomato and Avocado Quesadillas with Mango Salsa, and its entrée, Chef M’s Filipino Chicken with Broccoli and Rice, both received Top Dish awards. 

But every middle school competitor walked away with a sense of accomplishment and a newfound appreciation for the art of healthy cooking. The goals of the competition—to introduce kids to the joy of cooking, and to allow them to see its vitality as a life skill while introducing healthy meal planning and preparation—were successfully accomplished. And, according to Justin, the participants were even able to keep their sleek black chef jackets.

The recipes, as well as additional photos from the event, can be found in an online cookbook on the Millard Public Schools district  website.

Kacie Shields puts the finishing touches on her Mexican Black Bean and Hominy Salad, a recipe inspired by her father.

Kacie Shields puts the finishing touches on her Mexican Black Bean and Hominy Salad, a recipe inspired by her father.

Sixth-grader Ben Pauley of Beadle Middle School prepares his Stir-Fry Stuffed Peppers, which feature layers of rice, kale, steak, zucchini, sugar snap peas, garlic, onion and yellow peppers.

Sixth-grader Ben Pauley of Beadle Middle School prepares his Stir-Fry Stuffed Peppers, which feature layers of rice, kale, steak, zucchini, sugar snap peas, garlic, onion and yellow peppers.

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