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Future food masters

Instead of slouching into spring break on Monday morning, Medford elementary schoolchildren were whipping up salads from original recipes to impress culinary judges.

Unlike typical Iron Chef competitions in which contestants are stressed and judges are stern, participants in the Future Chef Competition held at the North Medford High School cafeteria were smiling as they tasted the results.

Chris Bigelow, a fifth-grader at Lone Pine Elementary, won with his Polynesian turkey salad accented with cinnamon, curry and cashews.

But the second-annual cooking competition involved more than just filling tummies.

"This is a great, hands-on opportunity for kids to apply what they are learning about nutrition," says Medford School District superintendent Phil Long. "They are reminded that we are not a fast-food society. Plus they experience the joy of sharing something delicious they made."

Organizers said nutrition education and food guidance may also help combat childhood obesity.

Phoenix School District held a salad-themed Future Chef Competition last week. Havanna Larazo, a sixth-grader at Talent Middle School, won first place with Mexi-fiesta chicken salad. The People's Choice award went to Riley Rush, a fifth grader at Talent Elementary, for a Chinese chicken noodle salad.

A spokeswoman for the Ashland School District said that although Ashland students weren't part of the national contest, which includes 90 school districts, it sounded like fun.

In April, the public can cast online votes for their favorite recipes and photos shown on the Future Chefs YouTube channel.

Of all the recipes submitted by Medford schoolchildren, 11 were selected and those pint-size chefs were invited to Monday's live event.

Jordan Sandoval, a sixth-grader at Hoover Elementary, wore a T-shirt that read, "I cooked my way to the district finals," as she tossed together skinless chicken breast, avocado, tomatoes and oranges. "It's a healthy, colorful salad," she said.

Like other student chefs, she made her salad dressing from scratch, adding what she first called "or-a-gon-o," before correcting herself and saying, "oregano."

Despite onlookers snapping her photo, Kaitlyn Bloom, a sixth-grader at Kennedy Elementary, stayed focused on sauteeing chicken until it "sucked up" all the basil marinade.

"I love cooking," she said. "This is a recipe that me and my dad have made since I was 8. I just twinked it by adding carrots, brocolli and kale."

Before any of the young chefs picked up a utensil, Jeff Ashmun, the area general manager for food service company, On-site Service Solutions School Services (Sodexo), gave them a quick course on the importance of hand washing and safety.

He held up a thin glove, which he instructed the students to put on the hand they use to chop with. A thicker glove covered the other hand, to protect it from cuts.

"How many of you have had experience using kitchen knives?" he asked. Half of the kids raised their hand.

"How many of you need knives to complete your salad?" he asked. All hands were raised.

He then assigned a seasoned kitchen worker to guide each of the students.

Odia Duran, the food service's "flair" cook, was giving Jasmine Gutierrez, a fifth-grader at Oak Grove Elementary, tips on making chicken with bow-tie pasta. Jasmine, 10, wasn't crying while chopping an onion because Duran soaked it first in ice water.

Cailey Conner, a fourth-grader at Sacred Heart School, used a paring knife and a French knife to chop up iceberg lettuce, bacon bits and olives.

At stainless-steel counter on the other side of the cafeteria, Ethan Josephson, a third-grader at Jackson Elementary, was making his salad with strawberries, goat cheese and lettuce medley.

His dad, Jesse, watched Ethan as if in a sports game.

"He practiced at home," said Jesse Josephson. "But here the cutting glove is throwing him off."

An hour into the competition, Hope Enders, a fifth-grader at Washington Elementary, followed her handwritten recipe for what she calls Hope's Cran-Tang Vinaigrette Salad, which combines dried cranberries with mandarin oranges.

Judges walked around the cafeteria with clipboards, evaluating each dish on originality, presentation and healthy ingredients.

"If they use too much fat, food with preservatives or something like (preserved, sweetened) Maraschino cherries, they scored lower," said Jesse Bartyzal, who is president of the American Culinary Federation of Southern Oregon.

Taste counted for half of the points he awarded, which is the same weight he gave when Ashland chefs from Omar's Steak and Seafood Restaurant, Macaroni's Ristorante and the Black Sheep Pub were vying for his approval at last year's Taste of Harry and David competition in Medford.

Sally Killen, who is on the school board, said the recipe needed to be easy. "If they can't prepare most of the salad without their parents' help, it's not really 'kid friendly,'" she said, holding her voting sheet.

She acknowledged that it was intimidating for several of the children to be working in a large commercial kitchen and being asked to make enough salad for judges and 30 members of the audience.

Bailey McCasland, a fifth-grader at Howard Elementary, said he didn't feel nervous as he was chopping red peppers for his chicken mango salad.

He wasn't planning for a culinary career, but threw his fork into the ring because he likes to compete, mostly by playing baseball and basketball. "I felt I could win," he said.

Jordan Blofsky, a fourth-grader at Jefferson Elementary, called his mix of apples, Greek yogurt and walnuts "Grandma's Cuppa Salad."

"It looks good," he said, admiring the presentation plate he created for the judges.

Alana Ortega, a third-grader at Roosevelt Elementary, was the youngest and smallest chef, but she smiled and tossed out thumbs-up gestures to her fans on the other side of the sneeze guard — her mom, Audry Colley, stepdad Maurice Hall and brother, Nathaniel Ortega, 11 — when she completed her strawberry salad.

While the judges were huddling and adding up scores, Jett Blankenship, a sixth-grader at Wilson Elementary, was tasting his Asian chicken slaw with kiwi, bean sprouts and toasted sesame dressing.

How is it? he's asked.

He finished crunching chow mein noodles, then replied: "It could use a little more dressing, but I had to stretch it out. I'm feeding way more people than I'm used to."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com