- Melissa Pasanen
- From left: Shrijan Pradhan, Kianalee Hill and Kamiya Coleman
On April 2, Kianalee Hill will finally get to pull out the knives and show her stuff as a member of the Winooski Middle School Jr Iron Chef VT team.
Hill, a 13-year-old eighth grader, was in sixth grade when she signed up for the Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day) culinary competition, in which middle and high school students work with coaches, often local chefs, to develop and perfect recipes. Teams come from all over Vermont to cook their dishes at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, where expert judges evaluate them.
In March 2020, after months of preparation, Hill was excited to compete — but COVID-19 canceled the event. "I wasn't happy about that," she said in a recent interview at school with her teammates, Kamiya Coleman and Shrijan Pradhan, both 12 and in the sixth grade.
The ongoing pandemic meant that the event wasn't held in Hill's seventh-grade year, either.
Over the past several months, the Golden Trio, as the teammates call themselves, has worked with chef Adam Raftery, kitchen director at Waterworks Food + Drink in Winooski, and Laura Graves, a Winooski Middle School teacher, to refine their Beyond Asada taco, made with plant-based meat.
Beyond experiencing the general pandemic challenges, they had to train without access to a kitchen because the Winooski School District campus is under construction.
Then, once again, the competition was canceled. The cause was a snowstorm, and at least "this time," Hill said, "I knew it would be rescheduled."
Now cohosted by Vermont FEED and Vermont Afterschool, Jr Iron Chef VT is normally open to the public, but the audience on April 2 will be limited to a few guests for each team. Judges include Adam Monette, St. Albans culinary instructor and the Food Network's 2021 "Holiday Baking Championship" winner; and Maria Lara-Bregatta, chef-owner of Burlington's Café Mamajuana, a semifinalist for the 2022 James Beard Foundation's best new restaurant award.
Snappy maroon chef coats in hand, the young cooks are ready. As in a professional kitchen, each has specific responsibilities.
"I make the bang bang sauce and pickled onions," Pradhan said, then rattled off the ingredients.
"I'm responsible for the asada sauce and cooking the meat in it so it can suck up all the sauce and have really good taste," Coleman said.
Hill makes the green-apple-and-cabbage slaw.
Raftery "just kinds of watches us until he sees us do something wrong, then he shows us," she said.
"He's so calm with the kids and so encouraging," Graves said.
"It's just a whole lot of fun," Raftery said by text. "Each kid brings something different to the table, so it's a learning experience for everyone. Plus, I like competing and wanna win!"
Even if their cuisine does not reign supreme, as the original "Iron Chef" show host used to say, each teammate can readily name their favorite thing about Jr Iron Chef VT.
"Working together," Coleman said.
"Learning that cooking the meat with the sauce made it taste better," Hill offered.
"Eating the food," Pradhan declared.