Students showcased their culinary prowess at the inaugural Farmington Junior Chef Competition held earlier this month.
The Farmington High School Scorpion Arena was filled with the delightful scent of roasting green chile on Sept. 17, as young chefs demonstrated their kitchen skills for the chance to win a scholarship.
Kelli Stradling, Food Service Director at K-12 by Elior, spoke about the origin of the event, “There was nothing like it in Farmington and I thought that the students would really enjoy having the opportunity to participate in something like this.”
Stradling said there were 12 teams present, ranging from fifth through ninth grade. She shared that they had 22 spots open, and grades four through 12 were eligible to enter.
“With only having a month from the time school started until the competition, I thought 12 teams was a pretty good representation,” she said.
Teams consisted of two to four students, though Stradling did note that there were a couple of solo entries. The individual competitors were given a 15-minute head start, but each team had to create their recipe within an hour.
Students were allowed to bring 10 ingredients from home, and all perishables were provided by the organizers of the Junior Chef Competition. Stradling explained a mobile market consisting of fresh locally-grown produce was set up outside the arena and the students were given purchase tokens equaling $20 to go toward the market.
Stradling, who went to culinary school and found competitions to be fun, said, “The kids really, really enjoyed it. They showed up and cooked their little hearts out.”
The contest asked students to cook within the state’s cultural realm, and the teams came up with delectable classics of New Mexican cuisine. Stradling said everything from chips and salsa, to chile rellenos, to a Navajo burger were featured, but some students got creative and offered traditional dishes from other cuisines with a New Mexico twist.
The Judges’ Choice grand prize of $1,000 was won by Avery Aikele and Kiara Brown of team “Feed Your Passions” with their sopapilla chips and salsa. The scholarship, as well as funding for the function, was completely covered by local community partners, Stradling said.
Rie Sandoval, Allison Chee, Aimee Roop and Andrew Degner of “Chef’s Choice” earned Best Recipe and Taste with a green chile Navajo burger; “The Tastemakers,” Blake Robbins and Reese Robbins, took home Best Team Spirit with their chile rellenos; and Best Presentation went to Troy Longoria of “Longoria” with a green chile pasta.
“There’s not really anything like this for the culinary-minded students,” Stradling said about school-based programs. “We wanted to get in there and offer a more diverse competition for students who might have interests outside of traditional after-school activities.”
Stradling plans to make the competition an annual event and also set up a scholarship fund, allowing businesses to donate to the fund or the event or both.
Farmington was the test unit for the cooking contest, and Stradling hopes to expand it to other school units, and then make a larger competition featuring district winners.
K-12 by Elior, which is part of the hospitality company Elior North America, aims to grow the competition across the nation.
Stradling said, “I hope that it takes off and we’ve got kids all over the country competing in our Junior Chef Competition.”
The recent trend of mainstream food competitions have become a staple in pop culture, and a career as a chef is a viable option for the youth to consider, especially when given more opportunities in, and exposure to, the culinary arts.