Swanton’s student chefs find more in cooking than just food | Schools

ESSEX JUNCTION — A team of five Swanton School student chefs took their culinary skills on the road March 9, competing alongside other middle and high school teams in the statewide Jr. Iron Chef Vermont competition at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction.

The competition and career exploration program emphasizes communication, teamwork and problem-solving through the design and creation of locally sourced meals.

“I have been waiting to be part of Jr. Iron Chef since third grade,” fifth grader Abigail Patnode said. “I was a taste tester for another group one year when they were going around with their dish and I knew that I wanted to be part of that one day. I have always liked to cook and wanted to be able to learn more about how to cook well.”

For students with little to no experience outside of a home kitchen, competing alongside teams from across Vermont in the Expo’s packed Blue Ribbon Pavilion can be a nerve-wracking experience.

“Just getting over the amount of stress was the competition’s biggest challenge,” Patnode said. “We just focused on what we needed to focus on and not what everyone else was doing. Our practices taught us that sometimes you work better alone and sometimes with each other. Sometimes you have to compromise. But, it’s easier to face your fears when you’re not alone. That’s when you fall back on the team.”

In January, the team, part of the school’s Crossroads Afterschool Program, began meeting regularly to design and practice the dish they would feature for the competition. Their result, cheesy pasta with mushrooms, required the use of both a manual pasta sheeter and cutter, along with a variety of other kitchen tools and techniques that were taught by coach Nicole Draper, who is also executive director of Swanton Recreation, the town’s youth sports organization.

“This was our first time making pasta from scratch,” sixth grader June Eekraw said. “It was kind of hard to get the texture and moisture right, but we worked as a team and got through it together.”

Eekraw said that the opportunity to be creative with food motivated her to join the team.

“Mostly, I joined to have fun and be creative, but I also want to be a professional chef,” Eekraw said. “I enjoy new experiences and exploring new opportunities, especially when they mean I can cook something really good for my family.”

The School’s Jr. Iron Chef team is known simply as the Swanton C.H.E.F.S., which they know as an acronym for “Confidence Helps Everyone Find Success.” The students created and decided on the name as part of a group discussion.

Eekraw is not the only team member with a cooking connection.

“My dad is my inspiration, ” fifth grader Kai Randall said of his professional chef father.

Students’ faces were all concentration as they prepared the dish they designed and practiced as part of Swanton School’s Crossroads Afterschool Program.

Randall said the team began weeks prior to the competition by listing the flavors and ingredients that each team member liked and disliked. Then, based on a pasta dish, they began making adjustments to meet their tastes.

“It got better and better along the way and was pretty good in the end,” Randall said. “Once we really started working together we were able to make a very good meal and it was really fun to do.”

Fifth grader Archer Aldrich reported learning the importance of good communication as part of the group.

“I learned that if you are trying to solve a problem it is better to talk to someone about it instead of just letting it be,” Aldrich said. “It was kind of hard figuring out what everyone should do during the competition, but we just talked it out.”

“Food brings people from all different backgrounds together. I am passionate about teaching young people how to cook,” Draper, who has a background in culinary arts, said.

In addition to teaching basic cooking skills, Draper said it was important to her to help the students design a recipe with readily accessible ingredients so that students could extend their experiences to their homes.

SIxth grader Jacob Bittner considers cooking a stress-reducing activity.

“Cooking makes me feel happy,” Bittner said. “I like to cook when I feel stressed. When I joined this team it was because I like cooking, but I also met some new friends with the same interests.”

Like his teammates, Bittner also underscored the importance of teamwork.

“You need to have teamwork to go into a cooking competition,” he said. “If you don’t have teamwork and everyone does their own thing you could have two entire pans of pasta and not even know it. You always need communication. I learned that from Gordon Ramsay. You always need communication.”

In addition to competing for more general awards at the competition, Swanton’s team also contended for the more specialized “lively local” award, which emphasizes Vermont products. The team utilized local dairy products, Cabot cheese and butter, King Arthur Flour and fresh, local eggs.

“The Jr. Iron Chef program offers students not only the opportunity to learn cooking skills, but how to work as a team and to develop leadership skills,” Crossroads Afterschool Program Site Coordinator Molly Hartman-Lontine said.

Hartman-Lontine said that in creating and perfecting their recipe, students learned a variety of kitchen skills, such as knife skills and safety, and about the importance of smell and taste.

“Jr. Iron Chef may well inspire students to continue the art of cooking and enjoy doing it,” she said. “We want to open up opportunities like this that students may not be able to get in other places and inspire lifelong learning.”

The Swanton students were joined at the competition by a second Missisquoi Valley School District after-school team representing MVU and comprised of seventh graders Ariel Bigelow, Brady Langevin, Tracen Morris and Chloe Bouchard, along with eighth grader Bailey Gervais. The MVU “Thunderchefs” created BBCAT Chili, featuring local ingredients including maple syrup and eggs from Franklin County’s Bouchard Farm.

“This was a fabulous experience and I am so proud of all the hard work that our young people put in,” Draper said of Swanton’s students. “They learned teamwork and time management skills that will be beneficial all throughout life. I look forward to helping our youth find passion in food for years to come.”

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