WILMINGTON — A local chef had no idea what he was getting himself into when he agreed to coach a Jr. Iron Chef team.
"I started working at Cask & Kiln in Wilmington and one of my coworkers had done it the previous year," said Jake Gallogly, 20, referring to a restaurant on North Main Street. "It sounded kind of fun. I jumped on it."
Little did he know that his team of Twin Valley middle school girls, who knew very little about cooking, would take home an award after the ninth annual statewide competition held in Essex Junction on March 19.
Other teams mostly had teachers or parents for coaches. Being in the food industry, Gallogy felt confident. The girls, he said, were a little scared and didn't think they would do that well.
"But I knew they had it," he said.
The Jakesfromstatefarm, featuring Rita Messing, Kaylee Carson and Elaina Gibb-Buursma, won the statewide Crowd Pleaser award with their sweet and sour soup with udon noodles, shiitake dumplings and quick pickles.
The name, Gibb-Buursma said, came after Messing made a joke about "Jake from State Farm." The insurance company runs commercials with the character of the same name.
"We all thought it was funny," said Gibb-Buursma.
The award is basically Best In Show for a particular heat, explained Twin Valley Food Services Director Lonny Paige.
"These guys were in the afternoon session. They can't call it Best In Show because there's two shows," he said. "I believe they competed against 12 teams."
Two Twin Valley middle school teams were sent up north along with two teams from the high school. Students attending Twin Valley Middle/High School mostly live in Wilmington or Whitingham. A total of 58 teams were expected to compete in high school and middle school divisions, according to a press release distributed before the event.
Paige thought there was a strong chance two Twin Valley teams would return with Crowd Pleaser awards.
"I thought we had a great high school team. I guess we used too much ginger," he said, calling to mind some feedback from the judges. "But it's fantastic they (The Jakesfromstatefarm) won. I talked to one of my judges from our (local) competition, Cammie Swanson. She was like, 'I knew that team would win!'"
The team practiced four times before the state competition, Gibb-Buursma said. They had met a few times in January and February before the local competition was held at Twin Valley Elementary School on Feb. 10.
Gibb-Buursma, who says she always thought it would be "cool" to be an "awesome cook" but always got distracted, decided to form a team with her friends after seeing that other friends seemed to have a lot of fun the year before. While the next competition isn't until next year, she said she could continue helping her mom in the kitchen until then.
Her team also plans to visit Gallogly at Cask & Kiln. He had given the girls gift certificates to eat there.
"This was our entire team's first time doing Jr. Iron Chef," Messing said. "It was cool to see a bunch of kids cooking healthy foods and not just cooking gross stuff."
Messing was surprised to see one of the judges was someone she's seen on Food Network's "Kids Baking Championship." Messing went up to the 10-year-old Vermonter named Peggy and asked if they could take a photo together. And they did.
Messing's team plans to try to make it to the state championships again, she said. But they don't know where their coach might be.
"He's younger and he's just been traveling," said Messing. "We were going to have our crazy social studies teacher (Scott Salway) be our coach but his wife got mad at him because he does too much stuff."
Gallogly helped the team by making suggestions, according to Carson. There was some experimentation with ingredients before committing to the recipe, which included ginger, carrots, bell pepper, baby corn, water chestnuts, white onion, scallions, parsley, sweet soy sauce, roasted vegetable base, sweet chili sauce, udon noodles, dumpling wraps, shiitake mushrooms, chili flakes, sesame seeds and cucumbers.
"It was nice because they didn't see the recipe until the first day of the local competition," said Gallogly. "I taught them techniques they did every week. Then they made the dish, which was pretty cool."
Carson, who felt the only challenge was in cutting up the veggies "really small," said she felt pretty good about the win. She described the dish as having a kind of spicy taste but not too spicy.
Before the competition, Carson was not all that enthused about cooking. But now, she said she is more interested.
Having only done a couple presentations at high schools before this, Gallogly said he would like to do something similar again.
"It was definitely a rewarding experience," he added.
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.