Middle school and high school students compete separately, and in the 10 years Twin Valley has competed, they’ve taken home 13 prizes between them. Lonny Paige, the director of Twin Valley’s food service who has headed the Junior Iron Chef program since it began at the school, says he thinks Twin Valley’s teams show great promise for winning this year, too — particularly the two teams competing in the middle school category, who competed against other teams at Twin Valley to secure their position in the state finals.
“Both teams are made up of rookies who have never competed in Burlington before,” says Paige. “They came up with great recipes and really nailed it at the schoolwide competition.”
The Junior Iron Chef VT program is an effort from Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), which hosts the statewide competition. The program challenges students to invent healthy vegetarian recipes that their schools can make using local ingredients. Twin Valley has been participating in the program since it began in 2008.
“When we started we had no idea what we were getting into,” says Paige. “I thought maybe three or four kids would sign up when we started this. In our first year, 24 kids signed up.”
This year, 48 students at Twin Valley participated in the program. “We’re by far the largest organization in the state,” says Paige.
Teams have three or four students and one coach, an adult who guides the team in their recipe perfection. Coaches range from relatives and teachers to local chefs. On February 15, the school held a competition for all the teams to see which teams would move on to the state level.
At the state competition, the teams will serve their dishes, made from scratch, to a panel of judges. They’ll have 90 minutes to prep, cook, and plate their dishes. The recipes that will be prepared were discovered by each team through research, and have been perfected through hours of trial and error and, once the recipe was finalized, practice. “There is definitely a correlation between practicing and winning the states,” says Paige.
Team Patriots, one of the middle school teams, will be preparing enchiladas with mango salsa in Burlington. When they were initially dreaming up their recipe, the team tried a pineapple salsa.“We felt like the judges would not like the pineapple salsa,” says team member Riley Dionne. The team ultimately decided the pineapple salsa could cost them the competition, and made the ingredient switch. The team feels that with mango, the salsa has a lot more promise.
“We try each recipe,” says Paige. “Sometimes it’s a success, sometimes not so much. Sometimes we’ll just keep practicing until we get it right. Recipes kind of evolve into what they are at competition. That’s the great thing about cooking. You try one thing and if it doesn’t work, you try something else.”
The program promotes teamwork, cooking technique, and of course, healthy eating. Team Patriots member Brady Morris, who loves to cook and whose favorite dish to cook at home is bacon and eggs, says learning to chop properly has been the best thing about being able to participate in the Junior Iron Chef program, save for onions, which can be noxious to the eyes. “Onions have been the biggest challenge,” says Morris.
Dionne says the best part of the program has been spending time with friends. “The school competition was really fun, because we got to hang out and clean the dishes,” says Dionne. Asked how cleaning dishes could be fun, Dionne says, “All my friends were there, so that made it fun. Getting to hang out with my friends and work with them on the team has been the best part of the experience.”
Paige says that one of the most beautiful things for him has been realizing how much thought the students who participate in the program put into their recipes. “They’re coming in with ideas and they’ve really thought about it,” says Paige. “It always catches me off guard how much the kids take this home with them. They come up with truly great ideas and bring them back and help the entire program.”
The teams head to Burlington on Saturday for the statewide competition. Representing Twin Valley Middle School will be Team Patriots: Liam Wendell, Cooper Adams, Brady Morris, and Riley Dionne with coach Lindsay Cunningham; and Team Red Rockets: Justin Ewart, Ayden Loos, and Aidin Joyce with coach Brennan Coffie. Representing Twin Valley High School will be Makayla Boyd, Iker Rodriquez, Francesca Pozzi, and coach Jake Gallogly. A second group of high school students may join, but at press time that hadn’t been determined.