A Tiger Tail Burrito Bowl with rice, black beans, fresh salsa, grilled vegetables, and corn with cilantro sauce and Fancy Flatbread, topped with kale, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, mozzarella, basil, and onions — that was what was on the menu from Crossett Brook Middle School’s two teams that competed in the Jr. Iron Chef competition on Saturday, March 11.
Crossett Book (CBMS) put forth two teams in the competition. CBMS sixth and seventh graders Evelyn Andrus (sixth), Cora Binkerd (seventh), Willa Hudson (sixth), Thatcher Palmer (seventh) and alternates Franki Beto (seventh) and Willow Thomas (sixth), coached by parent volunteer Dana Hudson, took home the Lively Local award with their flatbread dish. Judges said, “Very good communication between members.” “Very good attention to knife work while dicing and slicing vegetables,” “Lots of flavor, very consistent presentation, thoughtful in color choice.” “Very creative” and “local flavors highlighted.” Dolan noted that the judges are not the same for morning and afternoon heats.
Eighth graders Charlotte Burks, Julia Cisz, and Sophia DeSanto, coached by CBMS teacher Erika Dolan, put out the burrito bowl. Judges commented, “Everything well cooked (black beans cooked perfectly and well-seasoned),” “Very colorful, very vibrant. Nice variety of shapes” and “This team was a well-oiled machine at work. Everyone had a clear objective and was working well to support the whole.”
COMPETITION IN 15TH YEAR
The competition, which was held at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex and organized by Vermont Afterschool, is in its 15th year and brings together Vermont middle and high school students to show off their cooking skills. Vermont Afterschool’s website says, “Jr. Iron Chef VT is a statewide culinary competition challenging teams of middle and high school students to engage in improving their own health and the health of their community by creating nutritious, local dishes to inspire school meal programs.” The competition is split into two heats — morning and afternoon heats. Crossett Brook organizer Erika Dolan stressed that, “Although high school and middle school teams might be sharing the same heat, they are not competing against each other.” She said approximately 16-17 middle school teams competed in the morning and 10-11 competed in the afternoon heat.
Students must prepare the whole dish in 90 minutes without coaches’ help. The competition guidelines say, “The goal of the competition is to promote recipes that use local and seasonal ingredients that could be replicated in a school kitchen. While making fancy dishes is fun and a great experience, our goal is to enable students to repeat their dishes for their home, schools, and groups. This means using simpler, replicable recipes with easy-to-find ingredients; however, this should not dissuade you from dressing up the dish to bring it up to competition level. Teams are encouraged to use original recipes.”
Dolan has coached CBMS teams since 2011, though the competition was canceled in 2020 due to COVID and CBMS did not compete in 2021 or 2022. CBMS has won awards in the competition in the past, the Local Lively award in 2013 and the Crowd Pleaser award in 2017.
Dolan called the application process to join the CBMS team “very competitive.” She said they had 17 applications this year and were able to field two teams with a parent volunteer to coach one of them. Seven students competed with two alternates. Once teams were selected in January through what Dolan called “a very competitive internal process,” they chose their recipes and began practicing their recipes “over and over again until perfection.”
“I think students would say that being part of the CBMS Jr. Iron Chef team is seen as achieving something big, since it is so competitive to get in,” Dolan said. “Schools can only take two teams of up to five students. We keep teams three to four students based on our knowledge of previous years. For years I have engaged the teams in other activities and opportunities because of being a Jr. Iron Chef. One student many years ago describing the experience to future applicants said, “What I like the most in the CBMS Jr. Iron Chef is that we are like family.” It was wonderful that we could bring two teams this year!”
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