Students will show off their cooking skills to a panel of local celebrity judges at the 3rd Annual Saint Paul Public Schools Culinary Competition on Friday, March 4 at Saint Paul College.
But the lessons learned through culinary arts classes and the competition stretch far beyond the classroom and test kitchen.
“Our focus is on making our students career and college ready,” said Allison Zaccardi, a teacher in Harding’s Family and Consumer Science (FACS) department. “The hospitality industry is huge and the skills we are teaching are with life skills and career and college ready goals in mind.”
Twenty-four students from six SPPS schools -- Harding, Johnson, Central, Humboldt, Washington and Highland Middle School -- who have taken culinary arts classes will take part in the competition.
The winning SPPS team will go to the National competition in Washington D.C. to compete against students from nine other cities during the “Cooking Up Change” competition. Their recipe will also be featured on the SPPS school lunch menu.
The classes and this competition apply to real life, said Cindy Chang, a junior at Harding. The curriculum includes everything from basic culinary skills to kitchen safety and sanitation.
“Before culinary arts classes, I burned a lot of pots and almost gave my siblings food poisoning more than once, so these are nice skills to learn,” Chang said. “I have learned food safety and took that skill home with me. I am constantly rearranging my refrigerator so that meats are at the bottom and vegetables on top, so we don’t get food poisoning.”
The classes also teach students to help out around the house. Tracy Thao, a junior at Harding said as the eldest child in her family, she is often responsible for caring for her younger siblings.
“A lot of our student population have to learn to cook for ourselves and for our families,” Thao said. “This helps me do things safer and do things more quickly at home to help balance life with school. This class is a life-saver. It helps with time management.”
The SPPS Culinary Competition began three years ago to bring attention to the FACS department.
“Across the country schools are closing their FACS departments, because many people do not think the courses prepare kids for college, or they have outdated ideas of what is taught based on their own experiences,” Zaccardi said. “We are teaching kids some high-level culinary skills to prepare them for careers in the hospitality industry, cooking at home and in competitions.”
In this year’s competition, students must create healthy school lunches using federal nutrition guidelines and SPPS budget guideline of $1.36 per meal. The students can only use a list of approved foods to create a main dish with vegetable and fruit sides, all served with an apple or pear and milk.
It’s proven more challenging than students expected.
“This has been an eye-opener,” Thao said. “Every day kids complain about school lunch, but this gives me a chance to see how difficult it is to work within federal nutrition guidelines and a tight budget.”
The students recipes came together through creativity, compromise, feedback from fellow students and a lot of trial and error.
“It’s hard coming up with a recipe that doesn’t use a bunch of salt, sugar, oil and other seasonings,” Thao said. “So we spent a lot of time working to find fruits and vegetables that harmonize with our chicken and broccoli rice bowl as the main dish.”
Students also worked to ensure their recipe is relevant to and representative of the student body, Zaccardi said.
“We want our recipe to be original, tasty and new,” Chang said. “We went through a lot of recipes and we chose a rice bowl because it is something we don’t have in the lunchroom. We want to make something that is healthy and everyone will want to eat for lunch.”
The students have overcome a lot of different challenges preparing for the competition, Zaccardi said.
“It’s been amazing to watch the resiliency, creativity and bounceback these students have shown,” she said. They are really capable in the kitchen -- this showcases their skills, maturity and a lot of dedication. These kids really know their flavors.”
In the culinary industry, not everyone is the chef, there are careers in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other settings where people have to work under nutritional and budgetary restrictions, Zaccardi said. This competition is a good real-world challenge.
Since January, the eight SPPS culinary teams have been perfecting their dishes. Some teams even have volunteer coaching from local chefs.
This year’s judges will be Assistant Superintendent Theresa Battle, Chef JD Fratzke from The Strip Club and Saint Dinette, Chef Thomas Boemer from Corner Table and Chef Carrie Summer from Chef Shack.
Preparing original recipes for some of Saint Paul’s culinary heavy hitters is both exciting and nerve wracking, Thao said.
“It is overwhelming,” Chang added. “It’s fun to see how big this event has become and that everyone’s eyes are on you and they are here for our dish.”
“Overall, if we do win and go to DC it will be a really big opportunity for us,” Chang said. “And if we win it will be very honorable to have our dish represented on the school lunch menu.”
For Thao, the competition is helping her take the next steps toward her career goals.
“I want to go into business in the culinary industry,” she said. “So it would be great for me to network and make connections with food industry professionals.”
SPPS Culinary Competition Participants
Central High School
Advisor: Emilie Wall
Participants: Alana Sayers, Dexter Murphy, Hunter Sommerhauser
Recipes: Caribbean Cilantro-Lime, Chicken Soup, Hot and Fruity Caribbean Coleslaw, Caribbean Bananas
Harding High School Team 1
Advisor: Adrienne Anderson
Participants: Chinue Yang, Xia Xiong and Kaylyn Vang
Recipes: Thai Peanut Chicken Lettuce Wraps, Cucumber Salad, Pineapple Crisp
Harding High School Team 2
Advisor: Allison Zaccardi
Participants: Tracy Thao, Cindy Chang, Leslie Arroyo
Recipes: Chicken Rice Bowl, Black Bean & Corn Salad, poached apple
Highland Middle School Team 1
Advisor: Michelle Brown
Participants: Zoe Magnuson, Olaitan (Phebe) Olanrewaju, Gerardo Gurrola
Recipes: Fiesta Lunch - Crunchy Chicken with Spanish Rice with veggie salsa, cinnamon chips, fruit salsa, and vanilla yogurt
Highland Middle School Team 2
Advisor(s): Michelle Brown
Participants: Natalie Norquist, Oliver Paleen, Jack Molter (Amal Ahmed as a backup)
Recipe: Gourmet breakfast – Scrambled eggs with veggies, roasted seasoned potatoes, carrot & zucchini fritters along with bagel and fruit salsa
Humboldt High School
Advisor: Courtney Gbolo
Participants: Der Vue, Hibo Mohammed (Team Name: Hawks)
Recipe: Garlic Chicken Flatbread, Fresh Spinach Salad, Citrus Smoothie
Johnson High School
Advisor(s): Stephanie Love
Participants: Va Vang, Yeng Yang
Recipe: Chicken Laab, banana
Washington Tech High School
Advisor: Joan Wikre
Participants: Mai Tong Yang, Houa Yang, Tramaine Cunningham, (Alternate) Sher
Recipe: Southern Barbecue Chicken with Caramelized Onion Pizza, Salad, Diced Peaches