The culinary arts kitchen was quiet, as the two chefs performed for the three-judge panel that sat in front of their countertops.
Both had on freshly laundered chef jackets, and black beanies, and wore smiles as they worked away at the dishes they prepared for the competition.
Junior Katelyn Denney boiled her rotini, and chopped by hand, or minced in a blender, the vegetables she would combine for her Seahawk Confetti Salad.
Junior William Lee cut into small chunks the watermelon he would mix with onions and jalapeños for his Salsa de Melon.
Each carefully completed their task, within the allotted time, and placed their entries for the judges properly into bowls, garnished them, and then presented with an explanation what they hoped would win, to Principal Chip Clatto, Food Service Director Terry Hilton and Teacher Karyl Gavigan.
The three on Thursday afternoon judged the regionals of the Fresh from Florida Student Chef Cook-off, the winner of which next month goes on to the state competition in Orlando.
All three judges praised both entries, which had been judged, on a scale of one to five, in five areas.
By Taste, the cook-off wanted the dish to be kid-friendly and flavorful, and by Appearance they wanted it to look wholesome and inviting.
The category Best and Most Use of Local Ingredients included the consideration of highlighting seasonal foods. At least one of these Florida products had to be included: bell pepper, blueberry, collard green, cucumber, lettuce, citrus (orange, satsuma, grapefruit), potato, snap bean, strawberry, squash, sweet corn, tomato and watermelon.
The criterion School Food Appropriate, and Execution meant that the chefs had to consider the time and costs it took to prepare the dish, as well as how well it met dietary specifications outlined in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ nutritional analysis, such as being of an appropriate number of calories, or low in sodium and saturated fat.
Lastly, the judges considered Execution, such as the display of proper safe food handling, as well the wearing of appropriate dress while working in the kitchen.
Hilton paid the most attention to that aspect of the score sheet, and found only minor errors in what she said otherwise had been flawless technique.
Paula Kendrick, a kids chef in Tallahassee for the Fresh from Florida program, conducted the regional competition, which was relocated from its original site of Pensacola, to Debra Fletcher’s culinary arts kitchen, since two of her students had been the region’s top two entries.
Throughout it all, Fletcher stood quietly with a small audience of students, beaming, offering wordless encouragement to the two chefs. After she was announced as the winner, that the dish she had created with the help of classmate Monica Cruz would be representing the Panhandle against four other regions, Denney let slip tears of joy, which Fletcher shared with her protégé off to the side.
Superintendent Traci Moses and School Board Member Carl Whaley, the school’s resource officer, were also on hand for the cook-off, and each savored the two dishes, as did the other classmates of the two budding chefs.
Fletcher said she plans to take both teams with her to the finale event in Orlando April 22 at the Florida School Nutrition Association annual conference. In front of a live audience, Denney will compete against the winners of the Jacksonville, Tampa, Vero Beach and Miami regionals, who emerged from a statewide field ofr 75 entries.
The event will take place at the Disney Contemporary Resort, and similar to the regional events, the students will have 75 minutes to prepare their dish. The winner of the finale event will have their dish served in a school cafeteria and be invited to attend a culinary event with Florida’s Culinary Ambassador, Chef Justin Timineri.
Those other entries could include a protein component, such as cooked meat, fish or poultry, or cheese, but no nuts; and perhaps a grain component, which must be comprised of 100 percent whole-grain or contain a blend of whole-grains and enriched grains of which at least half is whole-grain.
One thing there won’t be is any added white or brown sugars, syrup or honey. Also, no desserts are allowed.