More than a dozen local elementary school students spent their morning chopping, slicing and simmering in a cooking competition, in the hopes their entry will one day make them a young YouTube star.
In a race against the clock Saturday at the fifth annual Future Chefs National Challenge, third- to-fifth graders donned chef's caps and worked with culinary students and cooking pros at the North Medford High School cafeteria hoping to execute their recipe in time.
Oak Grove fourth-grader Joseph Meray ultimately took the top prize, which included food prep gear and a six-axis quadcopter, for his Egg a la Yumm recipe, which baked egg whites, mushrooms and cheese in a muffin pan, served with a side of salsa.
From a pool of 65 entrants, the 13 finalists had been challenged to create healthy comfort food recipes, according to Sodexo General Manager Jeff Ashmun. Sodexo, the company organizing the national competition, provides food services for Medford School District, along with Sacred Heart Catholic School and Madrone Trail Public Charter School.
Joseph's next challenges will be desk competitions at the regional then national levels. The national winner will be featured in a professionally shot YouTube cooking video.
Multiple participants showcased creative twists during the competition.
Sacred Heart third-grader Josephine Ellison beamed with excitement at her recipe for "Anytime Pancakes," which featured novel twists such as granola inside the batter and a blueberry-strawberry-kiwi-honey "fruit salsa" topping. She said she loves creating with food.
"I love to be colorful and bright," Josephine said. "I don't want things to be all one color. That's not fun."
Kennedy Elementary fourth-grader Jonathan Wilt was similarly excited about his recipe of Spaghetti Squash and Meatballs, which placed meatballs on top of squash baked with mozzarella and marinara before garnishing with red and green peppers. He heard about the competition from his sister, and came up with the idea while thinking of warm, healthy dishes.
"One of the top things we eat at home is spaghetti," Jonathan said. "We saw how you can make spaghetti out of squashes."
At the other end of the cafeteria prep area, Jackson Elementary fourth-grader Zachariah Ash-Carvalho was getting his mixture of shredded zucchini, onions, eggs, low-fat cheese and breadcrumbs ready for the oven, on its way to becoming Zucchini Tots shortly before the half-hour warning.
After a short orientation on food handling and commercial kitchen safety, the kids got to cooking, knowing that their sample plates would need to be ready for judges in a span of two hours.
Fifteen minutes prior to cutoff, the pressure was building for Griffin Creek Elementary fifth-grader Nicole Ledendecker, who discovered while applying avocado frosting to her black bean brownies that her piping bag had a leak.
Medford School Board Chairwoman Karen Starchvick was among the judges making the rounds during preparation, grading kids on originality, healthy attributes, ease of preparation, kid-friendliness, taste and the plate's presentation. Starchvick said concerns about kids' nutrition was one of the reasons she joined the School Board.
"I love that we're encouraging kids to cook," Starchvick said. "To me this is awesome."
The judging panel included American Culinary Federation certified chefs and culinary arts teachers.
Ashmun said the competition's priority is to get kids familiar with cooking raw ingredients early.
"We think if you teach kids to cook at an early age, they develop a passion for it," Ashmun said.
— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.