By STEVE PETERS
Watch out, “Iron Chef.” Last Thursday, Rutland fourth- and fifth-graders got a feel for the heat of the kitchen.
At Sodexo’s third annual Future Chefs Challenge, five elementary school students competed with their peers, each armed with their own unique and healthy salad recipe. Held at the Rutland Intermediate School cafeteria and kitchen, these motivated and capable students wowed the judges and crowd with their cooking skills. Seventeen students submitted recipes for consideration, but only the top five were selected for participation.
“We hope it encourages them to cook and eat healthy,” said Marty Irion, food service director for Rutland City Public Schools and Sodexo. “Last year we did healthy breakfasts, and the year before that it was snacks.”
Sodexo, which is the school’s food and facilities management company, and several corporate sponsors made the challenge possible — not just in Rutland, but for 125 students throughout the country.
It was Irion, however, who oversaw the details for the afternoon. He paired up one of his staff members to assist each of the students, set up their workspaces and ensured they all had the necessary ingredients for their recipes. As he ran about the kitchen, his excitement for the students was evident.
The students had an hour to construct their salads and during that time I had the chance to move about the kitchen and observe. I was impressed by their focus and determination as they explained to their assistant what and how things needed to get done. They clearly knew both their recipes and ingredients.
Afterwards, as one of three judges along with Ron Parlman and Marilyn Edwards, I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with each of the young chefs and to try their dishes.
Elisha Gilman was particularly articulate and enthusiastic when describing his chicken and four-cheese tortellini salad. “It’s the opposite of what you’d expect. It starts with a big taste up front and then mellows out afterwards.”
Jacob McKeegan’s southwestern salad, on the other hand, was inspired on the flavors of his home. “I just moved here from Texas,” he explained. “I think my salad has a nice balance of sweet and spicy.” With a mix of mangos, black beans, avocado, chicken and pepper-jack cheese, I agreed. He was most proud of his presentation, however, and attributed it to his eye for neatness.
Next was Jesus Makar Mancinas Stepanenko’s Greek salad, filled with onions, olives, feta cheese and cucumbers. It was a fresh, perfect take on the classic and something that he often makes at home with his family.
Reese Shattuck, perhaps the most diligent of the chefs I observed in the kitchen, entered his Thanksgiving salad recipe into the contest. “I wanted to do something that no one else would,” Shattuck explained as I enjoyed the mix of green beans, fried onions, turkey and cranberries — all the tastes of Thanksgiving in one bite.
The fifth contestant was Izabela Woolf with a salad titled, “Izzi’s White and Green Goodness.” And good it was. There were perfectly roasted potatoes, crisp broccoli and hardboiled eggs. It was a filling and satisfying salad which would make an excellent dinner.
Judging these young chefs was not easy. We scored each salad on categories such as taste, presentation, healthfulness and appeal to kids. While they were all impressive and I hope they continue to pursue future cooking endeavors, only one could take first place, and it was Reese Shattuck, who narrowly won the lead over Woolf by just one point.
“He led the way entirely and really took charge,” said Gail Peterson, the Sodexo employee who served as Shattuck’s assistant in the kitchen. “I’m very impressed.”
Personally, Shattuck’s salad won me over with the Thanksgiving concept. The array of foods and flavors it brings every November was well represented, to my surprise, in the much healthier form of a salad.
Shattuck took home an iTunes gift card and an equally impressive basket of kitchen supplies that included utensils, a baking sheet, cutting boards, garnishing tools and cake decorating equipment. All five students were able to take home their chef coats and hats, as well as T-shirts.
Now Shattuck’s Thanksgiving salad recipe will continue on to face off with other winners throughout the country.