Coach Tracey Gamache, Ethan Williams, coach Christi Niles and Jarret Niles discuss plating procedure for their Vegetable Shepherd s Pie. (Submitted photo)
Coach Tracey Gamache, Ethan Williams, coach Christi Niles and Jarret Niles discuss plating procedure for their Vegetable Shepherd s Pie. (Submitted photo)
Friday February 8, 2013

WHITINGHAM -- The Deerfield Valley has a bunch of talented cooks, who have won several awards in a recent statewide competition that promotes farm-to-school initiatives.

"It was hard," said Justin Hicks, a winner from Twin Valley High School. "But we had to keep our hopes high and hope for the best."

The 6th Annual Jr. Iron Chef Vermont competition was held at the Champlain Valley Expo Center in Essex Junction on Feb. 2. It gave teams 90 minutes to prepare dishes to be shown to an expert panel of judges.

The team from Twin Valley Middle School that won during the morning heat was the Dipsters, who won Best in Show. It included members Kyla Lavoy, Caitlin Hunt, Gabby Gramazio, Karlee Walkowiak and Brett Swanson. This was their second year as state champions. They created "Asia-dillas."

The Zeman's Zing Zangs from Twin Valley High School won the Lively Local Award and the J-Lee Quinwonkers won the Best in Show award for the afternoon heats.

The Zeman's Zing Zangs team included Karissa Littleton, Maddie Howe, Kim Froment, Emily Gerardi and Jacob Hicks. Their dish was the Roti (Indian Flat Bread) with Vermont root vegetables, apple, cheddar cheese, Vermont maple caramelized onions and Tahini dressing.

The J-Lee Quinwonkers had won last in 2010, but came up with "Asian Quinoa Cups." The team included Justin Hicks, Kaylea Niles, Hailey Gamache and Baylee Crawford. This team has represented the Twin Valley for the last four years.

"I'm super proud of these teams," said Lonny Paige, Twin Valley Schools Food Service Director. "I'm super proud of all the kids who have participated. They all worked really hard and it's a testament to the whole organization, all the coaches and kids who are involved in it. Those three teams happened to shine the brightest. It's just such a great program for all the kids."

This year, the judges included the James Beard Award-winning author Rowan Jacobsen and school chef, Meggen Hanna. There were 12 judges for each competition.

"They represent the wide variety of experts in the food education world," said Jr. Iron Chef Vermont Coordinator Libby McDonald. "There were really interesting conversations on the different dishes. It was a great panel of judges altogether. They bring their perspectives to the table. We were honored to have them come."

Participants had to prepare dishes that could be re-created in a school kitchen within the time limit set at 90 minutes. The food also had to be locally grown or produced.

Before this event, Twin Valley school students held a preliminary competition at the Twin Valley Middle School on Dec. 20. Winners from this event went on to compete at Essex Junction.

Paige said that this year, he noticed the tables that were used in Essex Junction seemed smaller.

"In past years, there's been more room to move," said Paige. "They sort of organized it how to best arrange the 40 teams."

He thought there had been about 29 teams from Vermont middle schools and 11 teams from the high schools.

Prizes that teams won included scholarships to the New England Culinary Institute, chef shoes, cook books, and cooking equipment such as cutting boards and knives.

"This event has taken off way more than expected in the beginning," said McDonald. "We like to say it's more of a celebration of localized culture, school and food than a competition."

McDonald told the Reformer that the competition works more like a program, which students are thinking about months in advance.

"It feels likes everyone's coming together for the reunion," she said. "We get new teams every year and some kids have come for six years. We get together and celebrate what we do."

Paige said the event helps with improving at cooking, organizational skills and recipe development.

"Adults love that kids are absorbing this and enjoying it," he said. "Then kids come back for the competition because they're enjoying themselves and they're competing."

Baylee Crawford, a freshman, said, "We plan on going throughout high school."

Vermont Feed Education Every Day and the Burlington School Project started this cooking competition in 2008, to promote food education as well as local food production.

"It's a great outlet that brings together people from all different backgrounds and all different interests with a common goal that doesn't happen in that many different ways," said McDonald.

She went on to mention that students have forged relationships because of Jr. Iron Chef, which wouldn't have happened without the event.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.