The upper gym at Kids Unlimited was filled with as much activity, music and cheering Thursday afternoon as if a basketball game were taking place on the floor.
But no basketballs, jerseys or whistles were in sight. Instead, the student competitors wore aprons and chef’s coats. Their equipment included knives, skillets and hot plates. The smell of meat and vegetables cooking wafted toward the students and parents dispersed across the bleachers on the west end of the gym.
“Can you smell it?” Jani Hale, principal of the public charter school and emcee of the event, asked the crowd. “Mmm. Smells good.”
This was the second year running that this area in Kids Unlimited had transformed into a kitchen for competing student cooks. The “Iron Chef in the Nutrition Kitchen” program, run with partners including the Oregon State University Extension Service, uses the popular cooking competition format to boost students’ knowledge of nutrition, their skills and overall confidence in the kitchen.
At Kids Unlimited, that fits right in with the vision of leaders such as Hale, and especially Kris Walker, head chef.
Every weekday, Walker and his staff serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to students who attend the school or its after-school program, or both.
They place heavy emphasis on locally sourced foods, cooked fresh daily and with minimal reliance on prepackaged ingredients.
“It’s part of our responsibilities as a food provider,” Walker said.
The 12 middle school students participating in this year’s Iron Chef competition are enrolled in an eight-week class taught by Walker. Last year, it was the culmination of the class; this year, it comes right in the middle.
In their first four weeks leading up to the contest, those students learned elementary recipes through an OSU resource called Food Hero, along with kitchen safety skills and knowledge about nutrition and health.
“These kids decided to spend their extra time ... in the kitchen,” Walker said. “They would be in there playing and trying to make their dish the best it could possibly get.”
Those skills were on full display as the six teams turned up their hot plates and readied their knives and ingredients at the sound of the starting “Go!” called by Ellen Radcliffe, OSU’s nutrition education program assistant.
The students were already having to brainstorm how they would work in the secret ingredient that was announced just a few minutes earlier: mushrooms. The secret ingredient is a staple element of the original “Iron Chef” format.
A few minutes later, the apron-clad middle-schoolers were already busily chopping, sauteeing and swapping updates with their partners about their progress during the 40-minute preparation time.
Caroline McLaughlin and Maria Olide, both seventh-graders, moved like a well-oiled machine — something the three judges would later compliment them for in their final remarks. McLaughlin tended to the skillet as Olide cut up the chicken that would go in it.
The two of them, who chose the team name the Krusty Krabs, were making a broccoli, mushroom, chicken and sesame stir-fry with a side of rice. Olide said she felt “kind of nervous, but excited.”
The pair had originally wanted to make wontons, they said, but decided to cook the stir-fry because it was “easy, but tasted really good,” McLaughlin said.
Another team, the Spice Girls, were wiping crumbs and alfredo sauce from their nearly completed plates of pasta. They chose alfredo, they said, because it’s a grandfather’s favorite dish.
A few tables away, sixth-graders Victor Moreno and Kalia Kron, operating under the name Killer Flavors, were cooking shrimp, one of the prominent ingredients in what they called escorpiones camarones con arroz — shrimp with rice, flavored with chili, cilantro and lime.
Occasionally, the cooks had to multitask, responding to questions from the judges over the sizzle of their pans.
“I try not to be too brutal with them,” said Greg Wilcox, as he marked a comment on his clipboard. The culinary teacher at North Medford High School said it’s important to highlight the positive.
“What I try to do in my program is inspire them to not be afraid to create,” he said.
Sunshine Price, vice principal at Kids Unlimited Academy, and Skye Elder, head chef at the Brickroom in Ashland, rounded out the judging panel. They noted factors such as the students’ teamwork, cleanliness at their work stations and techniques.
The high-drama moments, however, came as each team served their dishes to the judges. Hale, who had kept the crowd entertained throughout the cooking with audience participation, held the microphone up to students as they answered judges’ questions about their seasonings and ingredients.
Tasting went on for about half an hour. Students began cleaning up their stations as they waited.
The weeks of preparation under Walker’s leadership helped prepare the students for the heat of the competition, Radcliffe said. Her role is to help with the nutrition curriculum that powers the class, and 4-H, another partner in the Iron Chef competition, helps provide leadership skills.
“KU has the perfect set-up,” she said.
When the judges were finished, Elder delivered their feedback to each of the teams. Students got high marks for their cleanliness, cooperation and creativity in the kitchen.
Then he announced the winner: Killer Flavors, with their shrimp dish.
“The cook on those shrimp was just perfect,” Elder said. “You did an awesome, awesome job.”
From their station at the end, Moreno and Kron fist-bumped, but played it cool. Later, Moreno ran to his father and brother in the bleachers wearing a big smile.
He felt “very good,” he said.
His father, Victor Moreno, Sr., said his son’s interest in cooking had flourished in recent weeks through Walker’s class.
“It’s always nice to see a smile on their faces,” he said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at email@example.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.