Over the weekend I had the great good fortune of serving as one of 12 judges for the Vermont Jr. Iron Chef high school cooking competition, a collaborative project organized by Vermont Food Education Every Day and the Burlington School Food Project. I was asked to be a judge most likely because Tom Messner, weatherman to the stars, was already booked for some sort of local celebrity obligation and I'm clearly game for everything (see examples of gameness here and here).
On my way to the Champlain Valley Expo, where the fourth annual event was being held, I had a mini panic. It went something like this: "Oh, shit. I'm super finicky. I don't eat meat, most nightshades, any stone fruits, food with the letter B in it, anything that has been "reconstituted," tree nuts, ground nuts, things with husks, things with stems, anything that has had dirt on it, food that is yellow, food in 'natural casings' and cilantro. I'm either going to have to fake it something fierce or pull out now." But since it was too late to ditch out and I was sort of hungry, I pulled on my big-girl pants and got to it.
Upon arrival at the venue, I was quickly ushered into the judges' room, a sub-arctic conference room filled with betocqued NECI students who were helping with the event. I wanted to watch the kids cook and offer bilstering critiques of their brunoise technique (e.g., Come on, you Sally, my grandma's wooden dentures could dice better than that), but I was told we had to stay sequestered the room and wait for the dishes to roll in. It was like culinary jury duty.
My fellow judges and I were divided into two tables — six judges at each. My table consisted of writer and junior statesman Philip Baruth, farmer Emily Donegan from Donegan Family Dairy in Charlotte, a plucky and preternaturally middle schooler from Vergennes, a former Jr. Iron Cheftestant and a woman from Oklahoma who worked for the National Farm to School Network, was better dressed than all of us and said "y'all." Other judges included Vermont education commissioner Armando Vilaseca, deputy secretary of agriculture Jolinda LaClair and a handful of educators.
Sixteen teams from around the state competed in the high school competition (40 middle school teams cooked for a different set of judges in the morning), and each judges' group had to sample eight dishes. First, we were shown the completed dish, plated on classy paper dishware, and asked to evaluate it based on its appearance and creativity. Then we were each given a little bite in a plastic condiment cup and told to judge it based on taste and use of local ingredients. Then, using a complex rubric that involved college-level math, we rated each dish.
To make sure we remained as objective as possible, none of the dishes had names, nor were we told which schools had created which dishes. We also weren't told what was in the dishes, only how many of the ingredients were local. This made me anxious. Unbeknownst to me, I could be eating a nightshade, a ground nut or something with a husk. But I quickly remembered I was wearing my big-girl pants and thus could not be a baby about what I was putting in my mouth.
The first dish — an individual black bean, sweet potato chili casserole-ish thing with a corn bread dumpling (this is a guess) — was a dream. I could have eaten it all day. It was hearty and full of developed flavors. My fellow judge Philip Baruth didn't agree. He said it was bland and lacked taste. I could have fed him a knuckle sandwich for that appraisal. And that was how the rest of the judging went.
We debated back and forth about the merits of pierogie-ish empanadas, cannaloni-ish lasagna and egg roll-ish fried things. I was impressed with the offerings, especially since my cooking skills don't venture much beyond the sandwich realm. The dishes were thoughtfully composed and skillfully executed. Some fell short — I'm looking at you, thing with the mystery cheese curds and cilantro. But, overall, the kid culinarians did a bang-up job.
Determining the three winners — Best in Show, Most Creative and Best Use of Local Ingredients — was a slog. I nearly wrestled one of the other table's judges over who would win the last category. I would have won, had it come to that.
Not only did we have to keep those categories in mind, but we had to think about the replicability of each dish. Could they be served in a school cafeteria? Would kids choose a coconut-curry tartlet over chicken fingers of questionable provenance slathered in ranch dressing? Who knows?
Here are the winners. They've done their schools proud.
Middle School Awards:
Best in Show — Team Murdock from Twin Valley Middle School with dried cherry, root vegetable chili with potato pancake
Most Creative Dish — Barre City Chefs from Barre City Middle School with grilled Vermont root veggie cakes
Best Use of Local Ingredients — Barre Town Bobcats from Barre Town Middle School with "Save the Hen" nuggets with Nature's Best BBQ sauce
High School Awards:
Best in Show — Hakuna Matata from Twin Valley High School with empanadas, salsa fresca and lime cilantro sour cream
Most Creative — Food Fighters from Centerpoint School, South Burlington, with blue mashed potatoes with root vegetable chips and French-fried onion rings
Best Use of Local Ingredients — Rebel Chefs from South Burlington High School with veggie chili with cornbread topping
Photo via Danielle Pipher