With an open heart and an empty stomach judges at the 12th annual Junior Iron Chef competition challenged students from 62 schools around the state to allez cuisine Green Mountain State-inspired dishes. Among this year’s competitors were 13 aspiring chefs from Milton Town School District (MTSD) who began working this past November to perfect their dishes. 

This year two MTSD teams, the Nacho Ninjas and Sassy Sobas took home awards: the “lively local” award for their use of local ingredients in their Vermont Nachos; and “Mise En Place” for cleanliness and teamwork, respectively.  

The contest tasks Vermont middle and high schoolers to create affordable, vegetarian and locally-sourced meals in 90-minutes, according to educational outreach coordinator Livy Bulger of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). All ingredients must arrive at the contest in their raw form and adult coaches cannot help students cook the plates. 

“It’s almost like a winter team sport,” said Steve Marinelli MTSD Jr. Iron Chef coach and food service director, adding the teams practiced once per week for 2.5 hours. 

Marinelli and co-worker Keely Agan set to work in the fall, inviting students to attend an informational session and allowing them to offer suggestions for dishes. The contest is quite popular and often attracts more students than the 5-person-per-team cap permits, Marinelli said. While he and Agan don’t turn students away, they do use participation and sometimes hold mini cooking contests to select which students will cook competitively.

This year, the district had two middle school teams and one high school team whip up their finest fare at the Champlain Valley Expo Center. The teams, a 50/50 split of male and female students from MMS and an all-female team from MHS cooked four plates.  

The “Sushi Slayers” crafted California rolls and spring rolls under Agan’s tutelage. Marinelli guided the other middle school team, the “Nacho Ninjas” in concocting Vermont-style nachos laden with Cabot cheddar and farm-fresh vegetables. 

MHS senior and five-year Jr. Iron Chef competitor Aimee Lemieux took the reigns of the high school team, the “Sassy Sobas,” producing a Soba Noodle dish with buckwheat flour and other locally-sourced morsels. 

“I keep coming back to Jr. Iron Chef because I always have so much fun,” Lemieux said. “[It’s] a competition, but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re there … everyone is always very supportive.”

For Agan, training young students to cook is a gratifying experience. She enjoys watching her pupils’ metamorphosis from culinary novices with little-to-no knife skills to budding chefs.   “Learning how to cook at any level is such a basic life lesson,” Agan said. “It’s important because that can get lost these days in such an industrialized food system where we can just buy prepared food.”

This year MTSD sourced ingredients from Cabot, Georgia Mountain Maples and Smitty Brook Farm among other local vendors. They funded their purchases and entrance fees through the Food Services budget, according to Agan. 

Vermont Jr. Iron Chef began as a partnership between Vermont FEED –a Shelburne Farms and NOFA collaboration that brings farm-to-school education to students– and the Burlington Food Project, according to Bulger. It features local “celebrity” judges and former competitors who rate teams on cleanliness, collaboration and final product, among other criteria. The  program’s goal is to empower students with cooking skills and a better knowledge of where their food comes from, Bulger said. 

  Winning teams from this year’s competition will head to the statehouse and cook up their award winning meals.

“That in itself is awesome … a lot of students that haven’t done that,” Bulger said. “But that also kind of reinforces the importance of farm-to-school funding and farm-to-school education. The people at the State House are making those calls.”

Back at MTSD, Lemieux was grateful for her experience with Jr. Iron Chef. 

“I am so glad I have been able to participate for this long,” she said. “It has been a lot of fun and I know I’ll be able to use the skills I’ve learned here later on in my adult life.”