The Jr. Iron Chef VT competition is hosted each year by the Burlington School Food Project and VT Food Education Every Day (FEED), and gives students a chance to create their own recipes using a strict list of 26 ingredients that are local, fresh products. Each team of five students must create a dish that can also be re-made in a school kitchen to feed fellow students.
According to competition coordinator Libby McDonald, the program promotes both farm-to-school food education, and local agriculture, while providing an opportunity for students to be leaders.
Twin Valley’s middle and high schools each sent three teams to the competition held at the Champlain Exposition Center. Those teams were winners at a preliminary cook-off on December 20, which featured six high school teams and 16 middle school teams, a testament to how popular the competition has become.
Middle school team The Dipsters, a team of eighth graders, won best in show for the second straight year during the morning heat. Asia-dillas were their creation this year, a modification of their award-winning double-dipped dumplings that took the same prize last year.
According to Dipster Caitlyn Hunt, last year’s recipe got an entire overhaul for the competition. “We wanted to improve on it and change it around a little bit into a quesadilla, so we changed the outside and fried it into a taco, and modified the filling we used last year with different vegetables.”
This year’s filling included onions, garlic, parsnips, carrots, Swiss chard, tofu, and kale, and was delicious enough to beat out 26 other entries. Team members included Hunt, Karlee Walkowiak, Gabby Gramazio, Kyla Lavoy, and Brett Swanson.
According to Lavoy, coach Cammie Swanson kept the team focused, reminding them of the task at hand when they began to lose focus, and made sure each team member knew what their job was. Lavoy says the team intends to stay intact through their coming high school years.
In the high school competition, the J-Lee Quinwonkers returned to the top, winning best in show for the first time since 2010, with their Asian quinoa cups. Coached by Keli Gould, the team consisted of Kaylea Niles, Hailey Gamache, Baylee Crawford, and Justin Hicks.
Zeman’s Zing Zangs, who won a best in show award in 2012, won the Lively Local award, which acknowledges the best use of local ingredients. Their dish was roti (Indian flatbread) that used root vegetables, apples, cheddar cheese, Vermont maple syrup caramelized onions, and tahini dressing. This was local-chef and team coach Bob Zeman’s fourth year working with a Jr. Iron Chef Team that consisted of Maddie Howe, Karissa Littleton, Emily Gerardi, Kim Froment, and Jacob Hicks.
To McDonald, Jr. Iron Chef VT is unlike any other competition of its kind, and Twin Valley’s schools represent the very best example of its competitive value. “I think the amazing thing is it brings kids from all different walks of life together,” said McDonald. “ It’s part of their (Twin Valley’s) school culture now which is really amazing, and you can see that happening more and more across the state.”
McDonald was also quick to point out the devotion Twin Valley schools food service director Lonny Paige has invested in creating such a successful program. “He’s made it such a special program, and there’s a winning reputation with their teams, but also a very generous one as well.”
Paige brought the program to fruition in 2008 when he stepped into the middle school cafeteria one day and asked if any students were interested in making a team. Paige expected five or six students to join, but 24 students signed up. In 2009 that number doubled and Paige scrambled to fill the demand for coaches with caterers, parents, teachers, and chefs.
Twin Valley’s Jr. Iron Chefs have become well known for their winning ways and their black and red uniforms. Next to the numerous banners of athletic accomplishment in the middle and high schools hang the Jr. Iron Chef champion banners. Paige says a mix of competitive spirit, camaraderie, and the thrill of creation is what drives the program.
“It’s a cooking club but we have competition,” said Paige. “We want to win. I can’t imagine there are too many kids in the school who, if I said to them let’s work with local vegetables and make some soup, would say yes and want to stay after school. But if I said let’s all make soup and see if your soup is the best, then the interest will be there.”
While Twin Valley’s schools have been dominant over the past six years, collecting nine best-in-show awards in all, Paige says the competition is beginning to crank up, especially at the middle school level.
“At the middle school level, I never expected to win again,” said Paige. “The competition is that good now, and I can’t assume we’ll ever win again, but to come away with three awards is humbling.
“It surprises me the kids can love this as much as I do, and they take so much pride in what they do,” added Paige.
The competition this year consisted of 315 students making up 74 teams from 65 schools. Each dish is judged on taste and appearance, as well as how many local products are used and how they’re featured. All recipes must also be replicable in a cafeteria full of students. This means students have to wow the judges, but also keep their recipe simple enough to be used in a school kitchen, and most important, kid-friendly.
The competition features 24 judges, and this year’s panel included award-winning author Roland Jacobson, as well as former Twin Valley student Shannon Lozito, who was a two-time best in show Jr. Iron Chef VT champion. Lozito says it was an honor to be able to judge this year’s chefs, and she is delighted by the growth and quality of the program.
“It’s a completely different world from when I was in eighth grade,” said Lozito. “It has really come to emphasize quality, and I am very honored to still be part of this program. My team and I began doing this for fun when we were in school, but I really have fallen in love with food because of it, and it’s really beneficial to see all these students have the same passion that I have.”
While the competition may be getting stiffer, Twin Valley’s recipe for success seems to keep working.