Students get cooking in state culinary competition

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The Oak Grove High School culinary team will be among the first students in the state to participate in the first-ever Junior Chef competition sponsored by the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition.

In fact, Oak Grove will be hosting the Central Mississippi “Savor the Flavor of Mississippi” competition on Oct. 23-24 featuring seven of the state’s participating 17 schools, with awards of scholarships up to $16,000 for each team member. State winners who qualify to go to regional competition can earn full tuition and fees for each student – valued at $45,000-55,000 – to Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky.

Oak Grove culinary teacher Debbie Miller said the reason for the low turnout in the state is because the deadline for submission was early in the school year.

“This is something new to Mississippi,” she said. “Not everybody is participating because the turnaround is so quick. We had to send the recipes into MDE Office of Child Nutrition. We also had to have the nutritional analysis for each item, so that it fits into those guidelines. We’ve done that; our food service director has software that they can just plug it in. she was able to get that for us.”

Miller said the short turnaround hindered the team’s preparations.

“The turnaround was so quick that we didn’t get a chance to practice, practice, practice as we like to,” she said. “We will do that after we get back from fall break several times because I want the kids to be confident in what they are doing.”

Oak Grove is fortunate to be the host for one of the three state regions. On Oct. 23, the Hattiesburg team of “Tiger IncrEDIBLES,” the Rankin County “Incredible Bulldogs” and the Wayne County “Wayne County Squared (WC2)” will compete from 10 a.m.-noon.

On Oct. 24, Hinds Community College-Vicksburg-Warren will have two teams competing from 9:30-11:30 a.m., followed by Oak Grove’s “Taco-bout It” team and McComb’s “Splash of Spice” from 1-3 p.m.

The competition will have at least two teams competing at the same times.

“I think there will be staggered starts so the judges can critique them on safety and sanitation so they are not trying to watch two teams at the same time,” Miller said. “They may appoint somebody as just safety and sanitation, somebody who is doing knife skills and somebody who is doing temp (temperature) because they have to temp everything. We had to turn in a plan that every step we do has to be mapped out.”

Because the competition is Mississippi-based, teams must use at least two Mississippi products. The Oak Grove team chose catfish, Miller said.

“We think it represents Mississippi well,” she said. “Students also have to eat this; if we win, it will go on every school cafeteria’s menu. So we experimented with catfish, we did a penne pasta with catfish, we did a blackened catfish and we did a Jamaican jerk catfish. If it wasn’t fried, the kids overwhelmingly didn’t care for it that much. So we went back to the drawing board.”

A rubric defines the guidelines for each team.

“We’ve got to have two Mississippi products,” Miller said. “The more we have up to five, we get three bonus points. So we’ve got that. You also have to use a spice blend that is used in the cafeterias, a Mississippi spice blend. But we took that spice blend and we added additional spices to make our own seasoning. I don’t know if anybody else is doing that, if they are using straight from those. We are using them as a base. They have Southwest, Italian and Creole seasonings; we are using the Southwest and we are incorporating nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, salt, onion flakes and chives. We are doing a Jamaican Jerk Taco. We’ve even let some adults try it and they like it.”

Miller said the team – which is composed of Michael Clark, Brinkley Davis, Joana Martinez, Donovan Reid and alternate Daniela Lopez – has been working on their individual assignments.

“ I’ve got a little Hispanic girl that is making fresh tortillas,” she said. “I have a young man who is cooking the chicken. I have a young lady who is making the slaw. And one person is making the seasoning and the salsa. If the judges’ palates are like students – and of course, we are using all fresh ingredients – I think we’ve got a pretty shot. I have no idea what other people are doing.”

The other honor that goes to the winning team in the state is that the top recipe will be reproduced in each of the state’s school lunch menus. So the availability of ingredients in the cafeteria is mandatory.

“We had to use a commodity from the cafeteria,” Miller said. “We’re using cheese and the chicken is also one of their commodities. They have to reproduce it. They can mass produce, they can order the tortillas in mass volume and the salsa is also a commodity item.”

State winners receive $16,000 in scholarship money for each first-place team member, followed by $12,000 for second place and $8,000 for third place. In the regional competition, besides the free tuition and fees for the top team, second-place finishers will receive $47,000 each, while third place wins $20,000 each.