WILMINGTON >> Twin Valley Elementary School played host again to another local Jr. Iron Chef cook-off, looking like Florida during the 2000 presidential election where a vote recount was needed.
"It was close," said Lonny Paige, food service director at Twin Valley schools who also coordinates the district's Iron Chef program, which is part of the Wings after-school programming. "I wanted to make sure I was right."
Christie's Critters had the winning score of 654 points while The Jakesfromstatefarm earned 608 points. Behind them were teams with 604 and 601 points, causing Paige to recount the scores.
Ten teams with approximately 40 kids participated in the annual event on Wednesday, Feb. 10, which determines who will compete in the statewide competition up north. This was a smaller year for Twin Valley, explained Paige.
"We had 16 teams sign up to participate and we usually lose two or three teams for various reasons. But this year we lost six, which was a huge loss for us," he said. "Kids have soccer or music lessons. It's hard to squeeze in one more activity."
Christie's Critters is a team made up of Sadie Boyd, Kylie Reed and Jayden Crawford with Twin Valley teacher Christie Niles as coach. Niles' two daughters have previously won championships, each on different teams. She was coaching her friends' kids, Paige told the Reformer.
The Jakesfromstatefarm features Rita Messing, Kaylee Carson and Elaina Gibb-Bursma. Their coach was Jake Gallogy, a chef from the Wilmington-based restaurant Cask & Kiln Kitchen.
Altogether, teams could score up to 810 points. And six of this year's judges were former Jr. Iron Chef coaches who led champion teams.
"There was a lot of discussion about the dishes and what the judges thought of how it would hold up in Burlington at the state competition," said Paige. "It was pretty interesting for them."
For the first time ever, a student currently enrolled at Twin Valley served as a judge. Previously, college freshmen or sophomores would return to take on that role.
But this time, eighth-grader Logan Boyd was asked.
"He helped me set up the gym. I gave him a ride to the school," said Paige, who – needing "honest, not jaded opinions" – kept it a secret until the competition. "I kind of had to sneak him in. I didn't list him on the program. I didn't actually tell him until the tournament started, just to keep the whole thing as innocent as possible."
Scoring criteria includes asking whether students would enjoy a dish. That piece made Boyd perfect for other judges to bounce questions off of.
One new category, Mise En Place, was a term borrowed from the French. The best English translation is "a place for everything and everything in its place," said Paige.
"It's about team organization, working neat, looking professional," he said. "That's a fairly new category at the state level but I kind of ignored it. It seems like they're putting more and more emphasis on it. I felt I needed to incorporate it into our criteria."
While it's normal to have participants painting their faces, that's not what this criteria inquires about. Judges are looking at: Is hair tied back? Is proper footwear being worn? Are knives being used correctly? Is the team working efficiently?
The statewide competition will be held March 19 and Twin Valley has a reputation for bringing home awards.
"We have 13 titles in eight years," said Paige, who is sending four teams this year. "In the high school, we didn't have enough to have an actual cook-off. We had two teams so both those teams will go up to represent us."
He applauded the community's support of the local event, thanking the Boyd Family Farm for plowing the soccer field so enough parking would be available for spectators. WW Building Supply donated propane and Grafton Cheese provided cheese. Swan Electric picked up tables borrowed from Mount Snow ski resort.
"All those little pieces of the community come together for this event," Paige said. "That's really just a phenomenal thing."