Every day you eat lunch in your school’s cafeteria. You may like the food. You may not. But you probably don’t think much about the challenge of preparing a nutritious and delicious meal for hundreds of kids.
Students at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church recently got a taste of what it’s like.
“Wait, guys. Check for the bread now,” Connor Fletchall, 13, said, running around with his team, the Rockets, as the hour they had been given to prepare their chicken noodle soup, with a side of warm bread, drew to a close.
“Cut it in half, and put a little butter on each,” said Grace Rasnake, 12.
“Put the foil over the pot,” said McKenzie Brady, 12.
The Husky Chef competition started three years ago at the school, whose mascot is the husky. It’s the school’s version of the cooking show competition “Iron Chef.” Four times a year, seventh-graders compete as part of a nine-week class called family and consumer science. The contest challenges eight teams to find a recipe and side dish that they like, shop for the ingredients and then prepare it for four judges. Four teams compete at a time, so there are two winners.
“Kids love it. It’s really exciting. It’s really fun,” said Richard Kane, the director of food services for Falls Church City Public Schools, who helped come up with the competition. Past winning dishes have included Gorgonzola cheese and pear pizza, beef kabob over rice with a mambo fruit salad and a chilled fruit soup that kids at the school still request in the cafeteria. Winners prepare their meals for the whole school.
“They put their hearts into these dishes,” Principal Seidah Ashshaheed said.
The class teaches kids about nutrition and cooking, mostly in hands-on lessons. The kids make meals in the classroom, which has four kitchens. This year’s recipes included crepes, smoothies, omelettes and paninis.
Luke Sausville, 12, from the Rockets, learned how to crack an egg. Maria Najarro, 12, from Awesome Sauce, learned how to peel garlic. Megan Ferguson, 12, from the Winners, learned that a chef measures liquids and solids in different types of measuring cups.
“I didn’t know that recipes could be as complicated as they are,” said Shea Ruyak, 12, as she helped prepare a chicken stir-fry with her team, the Winners. “Cooking is really fun, so [the class] has inspired us to do more at home.”
“I helped my mom before, but now I can help her more,” Megan said as she stirred chicken.
“Remember, guys, presentation is everything!” Kane said. (Presentation is how that the food looks on a plate.)
When the time was up, each team presented its meal to the judges, who offered advice and praise but mostly talked about taste.
In the end, Awesome Sauce won for its macaroni and cheese with a secret sauce and buffalo wings. The team figured it was a winning combination for kids and adults alike. The day before, Team Killem had won for its chicken pesto pasta.
Sean Butler, 12, was on team Awesome Sauce. He said that cooking was fun and that he learned a lot in the class. “I’ve also learned a lot about cleaning pots,” he said, “because at the end I always have to clean the dishes.”