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Bridport students test their culinary mettle as ‘Iron Chefs’

BRIDPORT — Eighteen Bridport Central School students were duking it out in their gym last Thursday, and we aren’t talking about an impromptu boxing tournament.
The students in question were combatants in the school’s first ever “Iron Chef” competition, which saw participants divide into four teams and transform basic, nutritious ingredients into kid-friendly meals. And this competition was about more than culinary bragging rights; it was an educational exercise that showed the students that vegetables, fruit, grains and pastas can taste good, as well as be good for you.
“It’s an opportunity for them to create, share and work together,” Bridport Central Principal Kathleen Kilbourne said as the teams readied their utensils and cookware for the cook-fest. “They’ve been very excited about this.”
It was a letter from fifth-grader Chaz Welch to school nurse Eva McDonough that planted the seed for the Iron Chef contest. Welch had suggested to McDonough that the school offer a “healthy kids club.”
McDonough discussed Welch’s idea with some colleagues, including Dottie Neuberger, the school-based clinician. The conversation wandered to the notion of an Iron Chef battle, such as one that is held annually in Burlington, involving children in grades 6-12.
“We didn’t think (the students) were ready for that,” McDonough said. “We decided to have a preliminary competition this year, and next year do the real thing.”
School officials involved students in planning for the March 21 Iron Chef clash. With help from folks at the Pratt’s Store in Bridport and the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, they put together a list of ingredients that included cheese, milk, butter, a variety of potatoes, onions, squash, carrots, apples, lettuce, peppers, broccoli, corn, noodles, eggs, maple syrup, cider, cilantro, kohlrabi, rutabaga, and many other items. Organizers decided not to include any meats, not wanting to run the risk of serving anything that had not been cooked thoroughly. The school community had already gotten a taste of illness earlier this month when a norovirus forced cancellation of two days of classes and postponed the iron chef competition, which had originally been scheduled for March 7.
McDonough and Kilbourne gave special thanks to Pratt’s Store for donating a lot of the items used on Thursday by the young chefs.
Participating students divided into four teams, calling themselves the Golden Spatulas, the Fruit Masters, Iron Chef Awesomeness and the LAME Butchers. “LAME” is an acronym for the first names of the four members on that team: Levi, Annabel, Michael and Emmi.
The four teams practiced making their dishes three times before the competition to get their recipes right. The menu  included a corn chowder incorporating kohlrabi and other fresh ingredients; a chip and dip dish using blue, sweet and white potatoes with a Greek yoghurt dip; a fruit quesadilla; and a latke using celery root as well as potatoes.
A panel of community judges evaluated the dishes based on presentation, taste, number of ingredients, collaboration among team members and the ability the dish to be made and offered at the school cafeteria.
On Thursday, the students took to their assignment eagerly, dicing the ingredients and cooking them on electric griddles, saucepans and deep fryers. The students were taught how to safely use the tools and appliances prior to the competition, McDonough stressed.
Chaz Welch was very confident as he and his fellow Fruit Masters chopped up apples, oranges, strawberries and other ingredients for the quesadillas.
Meanwhile, Michael Huber of the LAME Butchers was deep frying potato slices while his teammates whipped up a Greek yoghurt dip that included sour cream, spinach, peppers and garlic.
“Cooking has always been fun for me,” Huber said, adding Thursday’s tilt was a blast because “you get to see your friends; and the competition is fun, too.”
The judges — Beth Wiskochil, Mark Wiskochil, Grace Kavanaugh and Joan Korda — appreciated all the dishes. But in the end they gave first prize to the corn chowder made by the team Iron Chef Awesomeness, comprised of McKenna Phillips, Anna Wagner, Devyn Pratt and Elizabeth Chamberlain.
Welch was happy with the way Iron Chef worked out. Beyond the cooking, he said the competition allowed students to “bond with other people and get to know what their strengths and weaknesses are.”

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