Nevada Union culinary arts program teams with Sierra Harvest for first Junior Iron Chef Competition | TheUnion.com

Nevada Union culinary arts program teams with Sierra Harvest for first Junior Iron Chef Competition

Stephen Roberson
Staff Writer

Nevada Union students threw down, culinary-style on Tuesday at the school's inaugural Junior Iron Chef Competition.

And while nobody yelled "Allez cuisine!," — the French phrase that means "Go cook!" and kicks off the battles on Iron Chef America — the competition had all the ingredients of the hit TV show.

Bella McCuen and Alexa Smith beat out three competitors with their broccoli cheddar chicken soup, earning 34.3 percent of the vote.

THE COMPETITION

Students were tasked with creating a soup using carrots, broccoli or leeks and a protein in their soup. The seasonal, regional produce was donated by Sierra Harvest.

Kelsey Langel, who teaches the school's Career Technical Education culinary arts classes, held a competition in each of her classes.

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Each class voted on their favorite soup, with the winners advancing to Tuesday's finals, where students and staff tasted the pre-prepared recipes and voted during the school's lunch break.

The aftertaste of McCuen and Smith's soup will last a while, too.

"The really cool part is the winners are going to work with Theresa Ruiz, our cafeteria director, to modify the winning recipe so that it can be served as part of our lunch menu," Langel said.

REACTION

The inaugural competition was a big hit.

Long lines kept student volunteers busy handing out samples throughout the lunch period, with some coming back for seconds.

"This competition was great," said Rebecca Funk, 17, a junior in Langel's advanced culinary arts class who took part in the classroom competition then volunteered at the finals. "It was so much fun. I'm surprised (Langel) was able to throw a competition like this together so easily. This takes a lot of work and she did it well.

"We got a lot of (people involved). Everyone loved the soups. I had four people come back and say, 'Can I have more of this soup?' I still had enough."

HOW IT STARTED

Last summer, Sierra Harvest's Aimee Retzler and Sara Lieber attended the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Wisconsin.

There they heard different ways to integrate farm-to-school ideas.

"We heard about that idea, Iron Chef, and brought it back here," Lieber said. "We brought the idea up to (Langel) and (Ruiz) and they loved it and ran with it."

"Obesity rates are continuously on the rise in the U.S. and when kids can understand where their food is coming from it makes all difference to them," said Retzler, Sierra Harvest's co-director. "I'm always amazed when they can have that connection to the food — whether they made it, whether they grew it, whether they prepared it — they want to eat it when they have that connection."

START OF SOMETHING BIG?

The idea of Tuesday's competition was for it to serve as a starting point to something much bigger.

"There's an Iron Chef in Vermont that's been doing it for 10 years, and it's county-wide," said Lieber, who works as a FoodCorps Service Member connecting kids to healthy food in schools.

"Every school has a team and they all compete against each other, and that's a huge event. They have an audience, it's televised, and they have local celebrity chefs come and mentor them. So we see this competition going far."

"The idea is that eventually it will be a two- or three-hour event that our kids will do start to finish, and then we'll go district wide," Langel said. "And then we'll take it to the community and the middle schools."

NEXT STOP

Sierra Harvest has not contacted any other schools yet to gauge interest in a Junior Iron Chef Competition of their own.

"We wanted to start here and work out the kinks and the bumps and just test the waters," Retzler said. "If it's a success, then we'll expand it next year and take it to other schools."

Lyman Gilmore has a culinary arts program, so that may be a logical next step along with the high schools.

To contact reporter Stephen Roberson, email sroberson@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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