Contestants place their finished dishes out to be judged as chefs from California… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
Sizzling saucepans, men and women in chef pants running with pots of water and frantic cries for salt made the cooking stations at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena like a scene from a show on the Food Network.
Further enhancing the resemblance were boxes of mystery ingredients: acorn squash, alfredo sauce, persimmons, a pineapple and animal-shaped graham crackers.
But the frenzy wasn't a taping of the show "Chopped." It was the recent California School Nutrition Assn.'s annual conference.
Teams from 11 school districts participated in the cooking competition to highlight new federal nutrition standards and the chefs' ability to turn them into creative dishes that appeal to the pickiest consumers.
"These are the real Top Chefs," said Mary Lou Fulton, a senior program manager for the California Endowment, a nonprofit health foundation that organized the event. "They are cooking for the most important people of all: our kids."
The new standards include more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and no trans-fats, changes that some California schools have already implemented and morphed into a way of life. The Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a new food policy last week, ensuring that the state's largest school system buys organic produce and free-range animal products.
The Oakland Unified School District receives fresh produce from nearby farms and has 23 produce markets on some school campuses to encourage students to continue healthy eating at home.
"It's been a challenge because we're dealing with students," said Roslynn DeCuir, a food service employee in Oakland. "They eat with their eyes, and they might not recognize some of what is on their plates."
That challenge, DeCuir said, is what drives the cooks to be innovative. "This competition is a great opportunity to get creative."
The teams had 30 minutes to plan a kid-centric meal, prepare the ingredients and cook a plate for each of the four judges using the new federal guidelines. (They didn't have to use only the mystery ingredients.)
"We usually have an apron decorating contest," said Margan Holloway, president of the California School Nutrition Assn. "But the federal nutrition guidelines haven't changed since 1995. Now that they have, we thought this would be more meaningful than an apron."
Some teams weighed their ingredients before plating them; some stared at the acorn squash, perplexed. Other conference participants sat in the gallery chanting their district's team name, as if attending a political rally. "Give Peas a Chance! Give Peas a Chance!" said several, referring to a team from Palm Springs.
The changing landscape in school cafeterias is a result of education officials and elected leaders taking a larger interest in students' well-being, Fulton said.
Her colleague at the California Endowment, Judi Larsen, agreed but added that the guidelines are only the start of what needs to change.
"When we think about this opportunity, we also have to think about presenting in a more well-rounded approach," Larsen said, noting that time constraints may not allow for schoolchildren to finish their meals. "We have a ways to go, but this is a good first step."
In the end, the Cuisine Queens from the Antelope Valley Union High School District took first place with their chicken alfredo on whole wheat pasta, and a pineapple and persimmon fruit salad with a sweet honey yogurt and lemon croutons.
Anaheim Union High School District placed second, and DeCuir's Oakland team took third.
"Honestly, we thought we'd find things in [the mystery box] that we wouldn't be able to pronounce," said Nancy VanGinkle of the Anaheim team, which whipped up chicken tacos and stir-fried zucchini.
The only ingredient each team left out?
"That acorn squash really stumped us," VanGinkle said.