Cooking up a healthy change

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The Dallas Examiner

Competitive chef Ken Patrick sampled a portion of a meal called The Bird, The Fiesta, The Nest during the Cooking up Change contest held at El Centro College on Feb. 20 and pressed the team of student chefs about seasoning they used in the creation of the dish.

“Cilantro,” Gilberto Torres of the Townview Magnet Center team answered. “The chicken patty is already spiced.”

He indicated that the recipe could be adjusted with either spicy or plain poultry.

Patrick considered the answer as he and four additional judges munched and jotted down notes.

The nationwide contest is part of the broader Healthy Schools Campaign, stated Julie Farris, director of Training, Nutrition and Quality Assurance with the Dallas ISD’s Food and Child Nutrition Services.

This was the first year Dallas ISD high school students competed in the contest.

“This year they have 11 cities from across the country that will have events like this and all those winners will go to Washington, D.C.,” she said.

The national finals will take place June 6.

“Our motto is that ‘Healthy food makes better learners,’” said Halsey Ward who is with the Healthy Schools Campaign.

The initiative started in Chicago and works to ensure that children have access to healthy school environments for an improved learning experience, according to the campaign’s website.

“Obviously, there are a lot of different categories of the school environment. School food is only one of them,” Ward admitted. “But that’s the niche that [the contest] fits in our organization.

“The Cooking up Change is a vibrant, dynamic, incredible competition and we’re so happy to have Dallas on board this year.”

The kitchen and judging areas for the contest were somewhat more simple and utilitarian than many depicted on televised cooking competition shows but were filled with similar pressures.

The contest was not only about the preparation of tasty, picture-perfect samples for the judges; the student recipes had to conform to the dietary guidelines of the state and USDA guidelines, limit sodium content, and the meal’s ingredients could cost no more than $1 per plate, according to Olga Rosenberger, director of Cafeteria Operations with the Dallas ISD Food and Child Nutrition Services.

“It definitely gives students a different perspective on the program and the meals that they do receive every day,” Rosenberger remarked, noting that the students learned how difficult preparing nutritious, delicious and affordable meals can really be.

The contest also underscored the necessity of teamwork – which the Townview team admitted during the judging round that they discovered when a member of their trio didn’t show up for the competition – as well as the value of creative collaboration to meet goals. That was a lesson that Eryn Sherwood of Moises E. Molina High School took with her.

“I discovered that my friends, they have my back. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of them … this is really eye-opening,” the 11th-grader stated about the problem-solving effort the competition required.

The face-offs between the teams of chefs and panel of judges represented the last leg of a contest that took months of student preparation before a winner was declared.

First, second and third place winners were announced in the early evening.

The top team was from Wilmer-Hutchins High School, Jeremy Tezano, Paloma Quiroga and Marlen Hernandez. They received prizes of a trophy, medals, gift cards, copies of the cookbook Chloe’s Kitchen, and miniature footballs signed by Dallas Cowboys players Jason Witten and Sean Lee. In addition, their prize-winning healthy meal that consists of a chicken parmesan sandwich on a whole wheat bun, green beans with cherry tomatoes, and banana cream bites will soon be served as a menu item in Dallas ISD’s school lunch program.

The team also won the honor of an all-expense trip to the U.S. Capitol where they will meet members of Congress, tour the sights, and compete in the national contest.

“It’s actually amazing. Going to D.C., that’s an awesome trip,” Tezano offered on his team walking away with the trophy.

While the winning team received numerous prizes, there was much to be gained by all of the students who participated in the competition.

“I think one of the big things that we benefit from is that students are exposed to the different challenges and planning menus,” Rosenberger voiced. “And when we have recipes that are developed by students for students we see a lot more student acceptability … because we don’t want to have cans, we want to have healthy students.”

Less wasted food also means less wasted money, she indicated.

“One thing that I see is it shows them another side to the food industry – that there are multiple career paths they could follow,” Farris added.

Tezano expressed pride on his big win as he acknowledged that food was an integral part of his future goals.

“I really plan on becoming a chef. I plan on attending the C.I.A. [Culinary Institute of America] in New York,” he said. “I plan on being a chef and opening my own restaurant.”

The junior added that he took much of his foodie inventiveness from his mother, who is also a chef.

“She kind of inspired me to do what I did today.”

He also had kind words about his teacher back home.

“My culinary instructor Adam Bazaldua – he encourages us and motivates us every day to keep going and be better than we were yesterday.”

Even though the Wilmer-Hutchins team took home the big prize, the teen admitted the contest’s seemingly simple task posed to be a real-world challenge.

“Making a nutritional and healthy meal was not always easy but it was worth it in the end.”

Since Tezano is not a graduating senior he is eligible to return for the contest next year.

“Yes,” he said simply about entering the contest in 2017, nodding and laughing happily at the thought of another chance to cook up a win, the red ribbon of his medal dangling around his shoulders, his competitive spirit stirred. “Yeah.”

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