A little over a week ago I judged the University of New Hampshire’s “Healthy Chef Challenge,” an Iron Chef-style competition that pitted three teams of two students against each other. The premise was simple but the challenge was tough: teams submitted an original healthy recipe to us here at Guiding Stars and we ran it through our ratings system to assign one, two or three stars based on overall nutrition. We provided the teams with details about why the recipes fared either well or poorly, and they were allowed to revise them if they deemed it necessary to do so.
When I arrived in Durham, NH to judge the competition, tension was running high. The teams were set up to compete right smack in the middle of the largest dining hall on campus. During the dinner rush. They looked a little freaked out. When the emcee introduced the team members and we all learned that most of them had never really cooked before, we judges got a little sweaty and tense. And when the competition started and these “I never really cooked before” kids, under extreme pressure, picked up the ten-inch knives and started hacking away at rock hard root vegetables, all the chefs cringed and turned away. I’m sure Jon, UNH’s Dining Services Director, was praying he could avoid filling out an incident report.
Chef Chris Kaschak and I overcame our initial “If I don’t look it won’t happen, right?” reaction and worked to support the teams by helping them reason out the approach to their preparation and giving them pointers on how best to time the steps so everything came out hot and properly cooked. I have to admit I spent a fair amount of time poking the chicken and fish they were preparing with my thermometer so I could teach them an important lesson on food safety (and perhaps to a certain extent as an act of self preservation). We worked equally with all three teams because we wanted them to succeed, knowing it would send a positive message to everyone there that day.
When a local reporter asked me what purpose I thought the challenge served for the students at UNH, my reply was the same as it is when I’m asked why teaching young children about food is important: the sooner kids get the message that they are capable of choosing, preparing, and enjoying healthy foods, the better off we’ll all be. When we help kids feel empowered and smart about food, when we take the time to teach, and when we give them the space to experiment, we all benefit. We can create a new generation of educated, confident and motivated kids who can overcome the rejection of healthy foods that’s the current norm.
I can honestly say that I was blown away by the dishes the teams produced, and I was so pleased to see the look of satisfaction and pride on all of their faces. As I said to Chef Kaschak, I develop recipes for Guiding Stars and it’s tough to cram all the nutrition needed to earn even just one star out of three while keeping it tasty. So for me, the fact these competitors created star-rated AND palatable meals with as little experience and guidance as they had, was a sign of hope. It meant that somehow, we’re getting through to kids. They’re starting to absorb the messages we’re sending about healthy eating.
Now if only we could somehow incorporate knife skills into the equation…