From left to right, Crossest Brook Middle School seventh and eighth graders Cora Binkerd, Willa Hudson, Franki Beto, Evelyn Andrus and Willow Thomas.

On Saturday, March 9, a team of Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) students competed at the 16th annual Jr. Iron Chef Competition, held at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. They were among 40 elementary, middle, and high school teams from across Vermont – each contending for prizes by cooking up unique vegetarian dishes in 90 minutes or less. 


In the week leading up the competition, the CBMS team was getting its last practice sessions in – setting up a mock cooking station, laying out tools and recipes, and assembling their dish: a brightly-colored vegetarian paella. They topped it with smoky, pan-fried tempeh – a meat alternative made from fermented soybeans, and adorned the whole dish with radish, parsley, and lemon.  

Their process consisted of breaking the recipe down into various jobs – tackling these individually, while working in a line, alongside each other.  

On Thursday, seventh-grader Evelyn Andrus simmered root vegetables for a homemade broth, which would ultimately be used to cook the rice, while seventh-grader Willow Thomas marinated tempeh in olive oil and spices before throwing it into a skillet and crisping it up. The other team members – seventh- and eighth- graders Cora Binkerd, Willa Hudson and Franki Beto – chopped golden beets, red cabbage, shitake mushrooms and other veggies.     

Their practice work station was based in the school’s sustainability room – a space that formerly hosted classes in home economics. Dana Hudson, who coached the team for this year’s competition, made periodic announcements about time left on the clock, reminded students to keep their stations clean, and fielded their questions. As team members chopped garnishes for the dish, Hudson stepped in and suggested they get more experimental. She showed them how to shave curly ribbons of radish with a vegetable peeler.    



The group developed their recipe in January, brainstorming a list of 30 potential dishes sourced from cookbooks and from memory. “I asked them to think about some of their favorite dishes they’ve eaten with family,” Hudson said. “They were riffing off of each other.”  

That list was narrowed down to 10 options. Then, they cooked four – the paella, as well as spaghetti alla puttanesca, ratatouille, and a linguine dish with cheese sauce. These were narrowed to two, cooked again, and a final dish was chosen. They worked from a classic paella recipe and, “more than tweaked it,” Hudson said – adapting the seafood-centric dish to its vegetarian version. “Creating a paella dish without meat or fish was actually a challenge,” Hudson added.  

Eighth-grader Thatcher Palmer, the team’s stand-in member, said the paella was likely chosen because the recipe could be adapted to contain so many veggies – according to their final recipe, 18 of which are grown on Vermont farms. The competition’s Lively Local award goes to the team that makes the best use of locally-sourced ingredients. 

Other awards, doled out by 16 judges this year, included the Mise en Place award for teamwork and communication and the Crowd Pleaser award for the dish with the best flavor and originality. The competition was started in 2008 by the Burlington School Food Project and Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED) to foster communication, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. 

Near the end of Thursday’s practice, the team gathered around their paella simmering in a large pot – the rice soaking up the last of their homemade broth. “If we do it right,” one student said, “we’ll get a crust at the bottom.” They inserted a fork to the bottom of the pot, listening and feeling for signs of a crispy base.  

It seemed they would be walking away with newfound culinary skills – or at the very least, the confidence to gain these new skills if they wanted to. “Do you feel like you could take a cookbook off the shelf and follow a recipe?” Hudson asked the group. “Yes!” they shouted, “100% yes.”