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Five high school culinary academies are set to compete this week in an event that will give people a taste of a healthier school cafeteria menu.

The Fairfax County High School Culinary Challenge takes place on Thursday, March 13, at 4 p.m. at Falls Church High School. The free public event is sponsored by Real Food for Kids, a group of Fairfax County parents advocating to bring healthier food to school cafeterias.

Teams of four students will represent each academy at the competition, and each team will bring one dish to the table. Students’ creations will be judged on taste, visual presentation, nutrition - and on adaptability to the school lunch menu.

JoAnne Hammermaster, president of Real Food for Kids, plans to work with FCPS Food and Nutrition Services to see if the winning dish can make it into school cafeterias.

“People are asking for more healthy options, and we’re trying to provide that to them,” Hammermaster said.

The Culinary Challenge tasks students specifically with creating a vegetarian dish.

Clay Doubleday, the culinary instructor at Chantilly Academy, said that adds a wrinkle to creating a recipe, particularly in a culinary culture where meat so often plays a starring role. That culture was on display in the academy’s teaching kitchen, as students bustled around preparing beef tenderloin and muffuletta sandwiches stuffed with ham and salami.

But he said his students can come up with a dish that will seem delicious even to kids who normally turn up their nose at vegetables.

“Vegetables are not always ‘that green thing,’” Doubleday said. “If we can get people to understand that fresh vegetables have a ton of flavor, we can get people to really appreciate them, in and out of vegetarian dishes.”

To help inspire students for the competition, Real Food for Kids set up online cooking demonstrations with five local chefs through Google Hangout, an online video chat service. The demonstrations, which took place over the last two weeks, allowed students to learn new techniques and ingredients for healthy cooking.

On Feb. 28, Pati Jinich, the host of Pati’s Mexican Table, a public television cooking show, chatted with students from Chantilly, Falls Church and Edison academies while walking them through a recipe.

“Use different herbs and spices to add oomph to your dishes,” Jinich told students as she mixed Mexican herb epazote into a dish. “You can add flavor without the salt and the fat.”

The county’s seven high school culinary academies could sign up to participate in any of the five online demonstrations. While only five of the academies (Annandale, Chantilly, Edison, Falls Church and Marshall) are signed up to participate in the Challenge, all seven academies, including Mount Vernon and South Lakes, participated in the at least one of the video chats.

Along with Jinich, the other chefs who held cooking demonstrations were: Janet Yu, executive chef at Hollywood East; Todd Gray, executive chef at Equinox and Watershed; Jay Comfort, executive chef at Lebanese Taverna; and K.N. Vinod, executive chef and co-owner of Indique and Indique Heights.

Hammermaster said the diversity of cuisines represented by the chefs, from Mexican to Indian to Middle Eastern, is meant to highlight the diversity of the Fairfax County population and bring that into the cafeteria.

“A lot of school food is very standard,” Hammermaster said. “We want to introduce new flavors from different cultures.”

In the kitchens at Chantilly Academy, a fusion dish is in the works for the Culinary Challenge. But students possess a healthy sense of gamesmanship leading up to competition, saying they want to keep mum on the dish and even the ingredients, lest they give their competitors a peek at their strategy.

“We don’t want to give anything away,” said senior Aubree Hunter. “But I will say I think our dish can be very well adapted to Fairfax County cafeterias.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com