Pearl River Central School’s department of Food Services hosted their second annual cook off for high school chefs last week.
The event, which was organized by District Food Service Administrator Sheila Amacker, originated last year as a way to connect with the students.
“We really wanted to find a way to better connect with these students outside the breakfast and lunch routine," Amacker said. “And what better way to do that than through cooking and letting the kids showcase their skills.”
Where last year, Food Services hosted the cook off alone, this year they extended an invitation to the
the school’s culinary arts program to co host it. Adding the Culinary Arts program also gave the cook off the opportunity to have two categories for judging, culinary and non culinary, for judging.
Although the cook off was hosted in the school’s cafeteria, don’t let the high school surroundings fool you. Complete with an elimination round, a secret ingredient, and professional chef judges, this cook off resembled that of major cooking competition shows like Chopped. And by Thursday’s final round, only four of the original seven students who signed up, were left standing.
The final four included freshman Zachary Lassiter and sophomore Chloe Beachner competing in the Non Culinary category, and sophomore Braydon Schielder, and senior Jackson Lott competing in the Culinary Division. The students were given $30 earlier in the week to purchase ingredients, and arrived in the cafeteria around 1pm to begin prepping. Once the final judge arrived the student chefs were given less than an hour to cook and present their dishes.
About 20 minutes into the competition, Amacker, presented each student with a secret ingredient that had to be incorporated into the dishes they were preparing. The secret ingredient, refried beans, put the kitchen in a frenzy.
Sophomore Braydon Schielder, seemed concerned with how the surprise ingredient would go with his dish; chicken breasts stuffed with spinach and artichoke dip, and served over angel hair pasta.
“Refried beans with spinach and artichoke chicken, that doesn’t sound very appetizing” Schielder said. “But we’ll see how it goes.”
Senior Jackson Lott, who was recently accepted to the Culinary Arts Institute of America, wasn’t too happy either about adding refried beans to the shrimp pad thai dish he was preparing.
“I’m not going to lie,” Lott said. “It hurt my heart to get them. I don’t really like refried beans anyway.”
Adding the refried beans to Sophomore Chloe Beachner’s dessert dish, Cheesecake Egg Rolls, could have been disastrous also but if Beachner was worried, she never let on.
“I think I’m just going to put a little of the beans in here and cook it down like a jam,” Beachner said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, at the most it’ll just give it a little salt.”
Just like the cooking competitions on televisions, the competitors didn’t have time for the surprise of the refried beans to wear off before they were overcoming another hurdle. The four students faced real life obstacles throughout the competition, like chicken not cooking fast enough, warmers not warming, food processors getting jammed, noodles being the “wrong” consistency, and finding out a certain little brother ate one contestant’s cheese.
Culinary Arts instructor, Quentin McCardle and Food Services staff members served as mentors during the hour of cooking to help the participants overcome whatever was thrown their way and to give a word of encouragement when needed. The adults weren’t the only ones doing the cheering though, even with the immense amount of pressure they were under, each student still manage to encourage their fellow chefs.
While the cooking was going on the guest judges also toured the kitchen area to ask the student chefs about their progress. The Cook Off’s judges included Regional Sales Manager for the Chef Paul Prudhomme Magic Seasoning Blend Company - Harrison Smith, chef cookbook author and first-ever Masterchef winner - Whitney Miller, and executive chef and last year’s Chopped winner - Nick Wallace.
As the hour came to an end, freshman Zachary Lassiter, who put his own spin on the famous Philly Cheese Steak sandwich, was the first one ready to face the judges.
Lassiter used roast beef, mixed peppers, seasonings and provolone cheese, to create his dish. As the judges tasted his home made gravy and sandwich, Lassiter explained that he had to make the recipe his own when he couldn’t find certain ingredients.
Next up with his street food from Thailand, was Lott. As the judges sampled his food, the culinary arts student told them the first time he made the shrimp pad thai dish was while visiting his brother in Hattiesburg.
“We were all hanging out but he didn’t have anything to eat in his apartment so he and his friends gave me $20 and told me to go get something,” Lott said. “I went to the store, came back and whipped this up for all of us to eat.”
The third one ready to present, was Beachner. As the only girl in the competition, the presentation of her Cheesecake Eggroll did not disappoint. Her dish was served to the judged on her polka dotted plates, with matching bowls for the strawberry sauce, she also included chopsticks and fortune cookies for fun.
When asked where she came up with the idea for her dish Beachner simply replied, “well cheesecake is my favorite and I love Chinese food.”
The last to present was Schielder, with his pasta and chicken dish. The culinary arts student had experienced his fair share of difficulties before facing the judges, including trouble with his chicken cooking thoroughly and his pasta not coming out consistency he had hoped.
After the presentations were completed the judges deliberated briefly before choosing the winners for both categories. In the Culinary Category, first place went to Jackson Lott and second went to Braydon Schielder. In the Non-Culinary Category, Chloe Beachner took home first place a the “Blue Devil Cook Off Champ” and second place went to Zachary Lassiter.
All four students took home an assortment of prizes from the event’s sponsors and the grand prize winners, Lott and Beachner, were gifted a day trip to New Orleans to tour the home of the Magic Seasoning Blends Company. Beachner however decided to give her trip to her fellow competitor, Lassiter.
“Y’all are all winners,” Amacker said to the students. “We’re all so very proud of yall. Who are we? PRC!”