Giving young people across the state the opportunity to expand their culinary horizons and win college scholarships, the inaugural Tennessee State Junior Chef Competition was a major success – and it’s on the docket for 2019.
“The idea behind the Tennessee State Junior Chef Competition is to increase awareness and appreciation of the state’s school nutrition program while giving students an opportunity to compete and participate in something they might not have the chance to experience otherwise,” says Elizabeth Goss, who serves as the farm to school specialist in the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition. She helped develop a similar competition in Kentucky before relocating to Tennessee.
“Plus, it’s a wonderful way to help teens grow their appreciation for agriculture, and we hope they carry that with them long after the competition,” she says.
Competition Launches in 2018
The competition was held Oct. 13-14, 2018, at the Nashville Farmers’ Market Grow Local Kitchen, which includes a commercial kitchen, retail space and educational space for food entrepreneurs. It was open to Tennessee students in grades 8 through 12. Students were required to assemble teams, either competing in pairs or in a group of as many as five members, and each team had the opportunity to determine and develop recipes prior to the event.
Team entries were judged based on taste – specifically if the dishes were “kid-friendly and flavorful” – along with appearance, the creativity and ingenuity of ingredients, use of local and seasonal foods, and whether or not the recipes were appropriate for school food service in terms of preparation and cook time, affordability and nutrition level.
The teams placing first, second and third won individual scholarships to Kentucky’s Sullivan University, which offers a culinary arts program along with several other degree programs. The winning team members each took home $16,000 in scholarship funds, while members of the second-place team received $10,000 scholarships, and the third-place team members each won a $6,000 scholarship.
“We’re trying to grow and support the whole child through this competition as well as help them develop from the inside out,” Goss says. “They’re able to learn about nutrition while developing public speaking skills and refining their abilities to perform well under pressure. They’re also connecting with their peers and learning how to work as a team. Basically, the competition provides a safe place for young people to learn lessons and acquire skills that will serve them no matter where their paths lead.”
The 2018 Tennessee State Junior Chef Competition’s winning team came from Montgomery County’s Rossview High School, which is the only public school in the county with a culinary arts program. The school’s team, the Rossview Hawks, consisted of five seniors – all of whom were enrolled in upper-level culinary courses – who entered the competition with a Mexican beef and taco bake complete with seasonal vegetables.
“When we heard that the Rossview Hawks won [the competition], the students were so excited, and so was I – plus, I was incredibly proud,” says Amanda Del Gandio, the team’s head coach and Rossview High School’s culinary arts teacher. “I definitely think this competition is a wonderful learning opportunity for young people who are interested in cooking, and it’s a great way for students to pick up skills and knowledge that will help them as they prepare to enter adulthood.”
The second-place team, The IncrEDIBLES from Henry County High School, included four members who made chicken corn chowder along with a fruit cake trifle. Although their school doesn’t offer a culinary arts program and they weren’t very experienced in the kitchen, the team members were eager to learn, and it’s safe to say their tenacity paid off.
“The entire team came such a long way in a very short amount of time, and they had fun along the way,” says Jessica Borens, family and consumer science teacher at Henry County High School and head coach of The IncrEDIBLES. “In fact, the three members of our team who are eligible to compete again are already looking forward to going back – that’s how much they enjoyed the experience.”