NEWFANE — When Kindle Farm School's Junior Iron Chef team heard their names announced as the winners of the "Crowd Pleaser" award at the 10th Annual Junior Iron Chef Vermont competition, they were so stunned they couldn't move.
"That's you! You won! Go get your award," shouted their excited co-coaches, Chef Patrick Carroll and faculty member Beth Rosenberg.
The "Crowd Pleaser" award is given to the team "that best incorporates color, texture, and taste for a true crowd-pleasing dish." The competition was held at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction on March 18.
The winning team, called the Kindle Farmers, comprises four members: Maxwell, ninth grade (team captain); Liam, ninth grade; John, 10th grade; and Austin, 10th grade. (Use of last names not permitted.) Their winning dish was "Tofu Lo-Mein."
A total of 55 student cooking-teams from all over Vermont, both high school (grades 9-12) and middle school (grades 6-8), competed this year. Teams were judged in six categories, including safe food handling practices, team cohesiveness, and creative use of ingredients.
"This win is absolutely huge for boys attending a special school," said Drew Gradinger, head of school, in an email. "It speaks to the value Kindle Farm places on real-world programming, the high value of our innovative food program, and the tenacity of this team in particular."
According to the school website, Kindle Farm School serves boys and young men from Windham and southern Windsor counties in Vermont, and Cheshire and Sullivan Counties in New Hampshire. It is "an independent school approved by the state of Vermont to serve students with a variety of emotional, behavioral, neurological, and learning needs (who) benefit from a setting which provides multiple hands-on learning experiences, an appreciation of Multiple Intelligences, a 3:1 strong student-to-staff ratio, and an understanding that every student wakes up in the morning wanting to succeed.
"In July 2010, Kindle Farm partnered with Healthcare and Rehabilitation Services of Southern Vermont (HCRS), a partnership which greatly enhanced Kindle Farm's delivery of clinical services. Kindle Farm is a 501(c)3, not-for-profit organization."
Gradinger thanked local company New Chapter for its generous support of the school's food program and the Windham Foundation for its support.
"We work to build a relationship between healthy bodies and healthy minds," he said. "Traditionally, over 80 percent of our students are on Free and Reduced Lunch."
Carroll is in his second year as chef at Kindle Farm. As chef, he works for The Abbey Group, which provides food services management for schools and other organizations. He didn't set out to be a chef.
"After high school, college wasn't in my future," he said. "From Rockford, Illinois, I went out to New Mexico, where I worked in a resort as a dishwasher. But I watched the chefs and got interested. One night a line chef didn't show, and I took his place. After six months, I said, `I really like doing this.'"
With encouragement from the resort's owner, Carroll applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and was accepted. His program included an externship at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar, which turned in to a job after graduation. Later, he joined The Abbey Group.
Preparation for the Junior Iron Chef competition started last August when Carroll decided to see if students had any interest in competing in March. And they did.
"Actually, it was really fun," Rosenberg, co-coach, said. "The group meets on Mondays from 12:10 - 1:50 p.m. They used the internet to search for recipes, or brought in recipes from home. Each guy picked one recipe for one simple meal. As a group we discussed them. Each student made his recipe, and we taste-tested. They narrowed their choice to two, then to one: Tofu Lo-Mein was the meal they chose, and they've made it every Monday since November."
Each student has his own reasons for participating in Junior Iron Chef.
"I like hanging out with (Chef) Patrick," Maxwell said. "It's pretty relaxing to chill with people I like. My job was to julienne the carrots."
"It seemed fun making the food," said Liam, who was responsible for the tofu, the noodles, and the ginger. "It tastes really good, and it looks amazing."
The competition was an adrenaline rush, Liam said, "of smells, aromas, and craziness." Each team had 90 minutes in which to prepare their dish, "but we were done 15 minutes before the end," he continued, "so we started cleaning up and making everything look nice."
John was responsible for cutting carrots and cooking the food. He joined the group "because I really like cooking at my house," he said. "I signed up in a heartbeat. At first I was nervous, but we talked over what we should do, and I got more confident. Honestly, it was a lot of fun."
Austin loves art of any kind, "art, music, drawing - and cooking," he said. "I express myself through art. (Junior Iron Chef) was a fun opportunity to get out there." His job was mincing the vegetables. He also "looked over everything, gave tips, and helped any way I could. I helped do all the cleaning. I tried my best."
The day before the competition, the team left after school for the drive up to Essex Junction.
"We went to dinner at Asiana House on Pearl Street in Burlington, where we had sushi," Rosenberg said, "and we stayed in a hotel."
The win was such a boost for the team, said Carroll, because Kindle Farm is a small behavior-based school, and people expect so-called bigger, better schools to win.
"After the competition," Carroll said, "the team was so exhausted that at our next meeting, we did a reflection, then watched some `Iron Chef' on TV. Then the students could have some creative freedom to cook whatever they wanted, but it had to be good."
Carroll has revitalized the food program, said Lance Cutler, campus supervisor of Kindle Farm's Onyon Farm campus.
"We're lucky to be able to utilize Patrick in our community," Cutler said. "He's collaborated with staff to create dynamic cooking programs. We're seeing more vested interest in the kids, with more kids wanting to help him out in the kitchen, with clean-up, distribution, and ordering. They're developing real-world skills. "
The Kindle Farmers visited the Vermont statehouse on Tuesday, April 11, to cook for the legislators. They were one of six Vermont Junior Iron Chef teams being honored.
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at email@example.com.