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Jr. Chef Competition Spotlights East Chapel Hill Culinary Arts Pair

On Monday, April 1, when their peers at East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) were settling into first period classrooms, Elijah Neal and Max Butler buttoned up white chef jackets for a morning workout of culinary tasks. As one of eight teams in the state to reach the final round in the North Carolina Jr. Chef Competition (NCJCC), Neal and Butler had been rehearsing their recipe, NC Sweet Potato Poutine, for weeks. Now the white jackets and hats served as cues they had arrived on the big stage (otherwise known as a test kitchen at Piedmont Food Processing in Hillsborough, North Carolina.)

Jr Chef students at cook-off Neal and Butler are students in Michael Holman’s Foods II class at ECHHS, part of the Culinary Arts pathway in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) curriculum. Holman encouraged them to enter the competition because they are two of his advanced students who show drive and leadership skills. The students knew it would provide a good perspective on many facets of professional cooking, not to mention the pressures that go along with a culinary contest, so Neal and Butler decided to team up.

Holman said, “Jr. Chef Competition was a great way for the students to look into the operations of school nutrition. Students were able to discern the in's and out's of meal planning here with CHCCS, while engaging in competition with students across the state.”

Having just returned from Spring Break, the two ECHHS students managed to curb their yawns, once the team of judges entered the orientation space. The duo knew as soon as they entered their assigned test kitchen, the judges would be evaluating and often scoring every move for the next two hours. The competition spaces were closed off from view, and whenever a judge or contest official returned to the waiting room, every Culinary Arts teacher snapped to attention. “I figure if no one cuts their finger off, we’re doing ok,” Holman said with a chuckle.

The mission of the NCJCC is to inspire students toward training as culinary professionals, increase interest in locally produced agriculture, expand participation and visibility of School Nutrition Programs, and above all, encourage healthy eating habits. The competing finalists were scored for their ability to work as members of a team, demonstrate advanced skills in developing a recipe and then preparing the dish, while following a submitted plan precisely. After the alloted 90 minutes in the kitchen, the final evaluation was the presentation to the judges of the plated entrees. Contestants made opening remarks and responded to questions from the judges. All in all, the competition called on far more elements than straightforward cooking!

Jr Chef poutine Holman is a big fan of North Carolina Down East celebrity chef, Vivian Howard, so he worked with Butler and Neal to create a Howard-style Southern dish. Their adaptation of the classic Canadian dish poutine (french fries with cheese curds) highlighted local sweet potatoes and included chicken and more than 15 other ingredients. The presentation was far more artful and composed than a “pile of poutine,” according to Holman.

The student-created recipes were required to meet a range of criteria for the teams to advance to the cook-off on April 1. Recipes were partly judged by how successfully they could be replicated by School Nutrition professionals. Participating teams conducted student taste tests in their home schools and summarized the results collected for their entrees. Students also were required to calculate the cost per serving, as well as a nutrient analysis. The competition called on Culinary Arts students to accomplish numerous tasks and steps before they even set foot in the Piedmont Food Processing Center.

During the weeks long process, Neal and Butler worked most closely with Holman, but they also were coached by Ron Fogarty, ECHHS kitchen manager and from the district’s Chartwells K-12 Child Nutrition Department, both Jordan Keyser, district chef, and Lynne Privette, registered dietitian. Holman said that Keyser and Privette helped the students view their recipe from the nutritional angle, as well as analyze ways to keep both sodium and costs down!

Privette said, “By requiring that the student recipe meet stringent school nutrition guidelines for calories, fat, and sodium; contain at least one locally grown and one government commodity item; be approved through student taste tests; and come in at a reasonable cost, the NC Jr. Chef Competition opens up students' eyes to the very difficult task faced by school nutrition professionals daily.  Child Nutrition is so very proud of the work of Max and Elijah and their instructor Mr. Holman - what a great experience to develop, prepare, and present your creation at the state level. We hope to put the NC Sweet Potato Poutine recipe on the menu at East in May!”