Teen Battle Chef: Not Just Knife Skills, But Life Skills

Team Raspberry had to settle for apples in their last battle on October 9th, seeing as the berries are now out of season.

Tomorrow night at 5 p.m. Whole Foods on the Bowery will host the Teen Battle Chef Showdown, the Iron Chef style semi-finals for students around the Tristate area who’ve been competing in cooking competitions like the one two weeks ago at Whole Foods on the Upper West Side. That’s where Teams Raspberry and Blueberry traded calculators for chopping blocks as each team prepared a dish centered around local apples, the featured ingredient.

Alongside several other interesting and diverse members of the food and non-profit industries, including noted cookbook author, Rozanne Gold, Susan DeMille with the Urban Health Plan, and Henry Rinehart, owner of local favorite, Henry’s Restaurant, I was a Teen Battle Chef judge with the delectable duty of sampling the student chef’s creations and crowning a winner in the culinary and presentation categories. Actually everybody was a winner, exactly as planned: No surprise as Dr. Mehmet Oz, friend of Oprah, host of the “Dr. Oz Show” and founder of HealthCorps served as the host of the event and proud supporter of his program’s budding chefs.

In a city with some of the best private schools both nationally and internationally, it’s wise to remain aware of the fact that many public schools throughout the city are overpopulated, underfunded, and lack access to nutritional cafeteria food, among other things.  The team at FamilyCook Productions and HealthCorps are aware of these discrepancies, and partnered together to bring the Teen Battle Chef program to over 40 schools, with 80 programs in 14 states, all since 2009.  With programs that support culinary and nutritional education, FamilyCook, founded by Lynn Fredericks, who was also on hand for the event, hopes the children they reach will then carry the knowledge they learn about food to his or her family, thus empowering both family and community.   Meanwhile, HealthCorps is a proactive movement that aims to fight the obesity by teaching students across the country how to take control of their health.  Teen Battle Chef, produced by FamilyCook, is defined as “A Youth Development Program exploring culinary, food systems and gardening education, while battling obesity and chronic disease,” featured students from the HealthCorps program.

Each team consisted of six students from schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Team Raspberry prepared a Butternut Squash Cider Soup, while Team Blueberry got to work on some Goat Cheese, Apple and Swiss Chard Quesadillas.  Each team member took a turn at the microphone, explaining either the technique they were using to prepare the dish or nutritional information behind the ingredient in use.  Humor and knowledge were in evidence, these chefs knew how to keep the audience and judges laughing while teaching us all how to avoid chopping off fingers when working with butternut squash; “you want to give a high five, not a high four!” as one chef put it.

Before they got started, us judges got a chance to meet the student chefs, all of whom were high school students or recent graduates, and we were told a bit about their background and their home boroughs.  I saw a bit of myself in each of the participants, from Joel who came alive when the microphone was in his hand, to Fatima the resident comedian on Team Blueberry to the shy but stoic Michael.

In elementary school, I was an avid participant in every after-school program that my school provided, from woodcraft to Ecuadorian folk dance.  I thrived from the confidence and view of a bigger world beyond my neighborhood school that these programs instilled in me.  However, in middle school, both my education and extra-curricular activities were severely compromised by budget cuts.  Without a good education and ways to pursue interests outside of school, I saw firsthand the trouble that students found themselves in without the knowledge or distractions to keep their minds and dreams active.

Luckily, my academic years since then have been fruitful and fulfilling.  Along the way, I developed an interest in non-profit work, benefiting children and food.  The opportunity to judge this contest was a reflection of my own personal journey, from a kid in a similar situation to the student judges to the confident, college-educated person that I am now.  It was clear that this opportunity provided these kids with not only the knife skills needed to cut an onion without crying, but also the power and conviction that they can impact the health and wellness of their communities, simply by knowing how to pick smarter alternatives when preparing the cultural foods that are so beloved.

“I’m really proud of you guys, “ Dr. Oz had said to the chef hat-topped students at the beginning of the competition.  As we left Whole Foods with our bellies full and our minds enlightened, I don’t think there was anybody on the judging panel or in the audience who couldn’t agree with him more.

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With an affinity for making lists (complete with check boxes), a history of smuggling goat cheese into college cafeterias and a never ending obsession to perfect her pie crust, it was only natural that Michaela Johnson would find her way into the position of planning and executing events for a food magazine.