Judging Jr. Iron Chef at Twin Valley

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WILMINGTON >> Students were busy chopping veggies, cooking eggs, prepping taco shells and running dishes to the oven.

They were competing in this year's Jr. Iron Chef cook-off for the right to represent Twin Valley schools in a statewide competition. And I thought I'd get a sample or two before heading home but Twin Valley Food Service Director Lonny Paige tapped me on the shoulder. He needed a judge before the food was ready.

His panels typically consist of professionals from restaurants and school food service as well as past Jr. Iron Chef coaches, past student participants and "foodies."

"I like to get different viewpoints and opinions so that, hopefully, we get a champion that appeals to many different people," said Paige. "Some of the judges have been doing it for years and others will probably only do it once."

This year's judges included Meri Spice, marketing director for Grafton Cheese; Jennifer Lair, owner and chef of Jezebel's Restaurant in Wilmington; Todd Darrah, owner and chef of Chelsea Royale Diner in Brattleboro; Linda Dovitski, kitchen manager at Twin Valley Elementary School; Jeff Collins, chef at Nonna's Restaurant in Dover; Matt Murdock, former coach and state champion; and Nicki Steele, a local foodie.

Darrah previous participated as a coach of a two-time state champion team. He offered a lot of comments to this year's participants, jotting down notes on each team's score sheets. Paige told judges teams always appreciate feedback.

Scores were based on nutrition, taste, appeal to kids, preparation and appearance. The heaviest portion of the score was based on how easily the dish could be replicated in a cafeteria setting. Dovitski was our guru in that department. She could quickly scan the recipe or just look at the dish, knowing whether it was feasible or too expensive. She could also offer input regarding children's likes and dislikes.

"The point scale was really tight," Paige told teams gathered in the Twin Valley Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 11.

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The judges take their time to evaluate all criteria and must pace themselves while eating. It's easy to fill up on the tastier dishes. Several of the judges regularly watch television programs based on the "Iron Chef" concept. While some do not care for Chef Gordon Ramsey's brash criticisms, others say that's the reality of the kitchen.

Readsboro saw their first time participation in the event, with two teams competing along with nine Twin Valley Middle School teams and three from Twin Valley High School.

Teams from the area have participated in the state competition since the Vermont Fund Education Every Day and the Burlington School Fund Project created the event back in 2008. Over seven years, Twin Valley won 12 titles.

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"I was not very involved this year. I tried to take a step back. I want this program to go without just me running it. The coaches really took the ball and ran with it," said Paige. "We had a team that was dissolving. The parents came together and held that team together. It's a great thing to have that happen."

Paige's dedication to keeping kids interested in cooking inspires others. His announcements of the winners received thunderous applause in the gymnasium as did his thanks of support.

Peter Wallace, owner of Folly Foods in Wilmington, coached for his second year after being approached by Paige and a parent. His team made Moroccan roasted roots with vadouvan curried cider vinaigrette.

"We tried to use seasonal and local food as much as possible. We tried to think about what's available to us through Vermont and then work with that," said Wallace.

Despite busy schedules, his team was able to meet up and toss ideas off one another. They made their dish five times before the competition.

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Paige suggested members of the four teams heading to Burlington for a statewide competition go early and enjoy a night there.

"If we don't get 'Best in Show' this year, I'm going to be ripped," he said.

The grand champion of the Twin Valley competition was Zeman's Zing Zangs, named after coach Bob Zeman. Team members Maddie Howe, Emily Gerardi and Jacob Hikes made a stuffed chapati wrap with just the right zest. They won two awards in previous years.

Second place went to All Wrapped Up, made up of team members Tabby Felisko, Chad Bernard, Sklyer Boyd, Hailey Howe and coach Troy Felisko. Their seared Mayan couscous wraps with cream sauce were original.

The Corny Crew took third place with a corn chowder with cheddar-scallion biscuits. Judges could appreciate the biscuits nearly as much as the soup. Rusty's Racking Crew took fourth place with veggie lo mein, which was nutritional, easy to make and had a good taste.

Now, let's see if any of these teams can bring home another state title in March.

Contact Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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