Fourteen-year-old Peter Gebo looked over a colorful tray of chopped vegetables and furrowed his brow. He had combined red and yellow peppers, leeks, carrots and sweet potatoes in the industrial kitchen at Bristol's Mount Abraham Union Middle-High School, but something was still missing.
"Cinnamon!" he announced to three other young chefs. "Let's try adding cinnamon, and maybe a little bit of thyme, before they're roasted."
Peter and the others weren't just playing with their food; they were practicing for this year's Jr. Iron Chef Vermont competition. The foursome makes up one of 67 teams from more than 50 middle and high schools across the state preparing to compete on March 22 at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. Teams will each cook an original vegetarian dish for a panel of judges and earn prizes for recipes that incorporate great colors, textures and tastes. They earn bonus points for highlighting Vermont ingredients.
Now in its seventh year, the competition — a collaborative effort between Vermont FEED and the Burlington School Food Project — is designed to connect kids to the food they eat and to local agriculture. "It's about prepping food, learning skills and working together," explained Kathy Alexander, food service director for Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, who is coaching Peter's team, as well as a middle school team, at Mount Abe.
Each week since October, the young chefs she's taken under her wing have met after school to experiment with different foods, perfect kitchen skills such as chopping and sautéing, browse cookbooks, and ponder the potential of local ingredients. By early February, it was time to refine their recipes.
And we're not talking kid stuff like peanut butter and jelly. Peter and his teammates were working on a baked pasta dish they call Confetti Spaghetti.
On the other side of the kitchen, two members of the middle school team prepared broccoli-pesto torticotti — think manicotti made from tortillas instead of pasta — with white-bean salsa.
The Aldrich sisters, Ashley, 12, and Emily, 14, were tweaking that recipe. At their last practice, the tortillas got soggy. This time, they reduced the amount of olive oil in the pesto and served the salsa on the side in a small cup. They were confident they'd done a good job using local ingredients — Emily tallied 11 — but at Jr. Iron Chef, they'll need to impress the judges with their presentation, too.
The Mount Abe kids know the competition will be tough this year. The powerhouse team at Twin Valley School in Whitingham swept three of the eight awards in 2013. That school's cooking program is so popular that it has to hold a cook-off to select Jr. Iron Chef team members from about 80 participating students.
The best teams sometimes emerge from unexpected places. Last year, a group of soccer players from Charlotte Central School left the field and headed into the kitchen to secure a Best in Show award despite their relative inexperience.
But it takes more than strong teamwork and culinary creativity to win. Kids have to be able to roll with the punches under pressure. Last year, Peter Gebo's team developed what they believed was a prize-worthy recipe for a swiss chard and kale frittata. But amid the nervous excitement of the competition, they accidentally added the garlic twice. "We call it the 'Garlic Disaster,'" he said wryly.
Winning isn't everything in this contest. Alexander said she's more interested in helping the kids develop good knife skills and foster healthy eating habits. She's watched her students learn and grow since they began practicing last fall. Take Ashley Aldrich, who'd never even heard of leeks or chard before she joined the team. Now she can cook with them — and present them — like a pro.
Back in the kitchen that February afternoon, Ashley and Emily practiced plating; they arranged two small rectangular torticotti on each plate. A small cup of salsa topped with a festive spiral of chopped red chard completed the look.
Meanwhile, Peter's team did some quick math — how many knife cuts would yield 16 rectangular servings? — then topped each cube of the pasta bake with tomato sauce, grated Cabot cheddar and a dash of smoked paprika.
Finally, the kids got to sample their work. Were Peter's spice additions a good idea? Would Emily and Ashley's tortillas remain crisp? The students examined their plated food carefully, took a few notes for their next practice session and dug in.
"This is delicious!" someone exclaimed through a mouthful of pasta. Good thing table manners aren't part of this competition.