ST. ALBANS – Stovetops sizzled in the St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC)’s cafeteria Thursday afternoon as students from Bakersfield, Fairfield and St. Albans raced through the dishes they hoped could earn them the title “Junior Iron Chef.”

Thursday’s practice competition, featuring a team from Bakersfield, two teams from St. Albans and, for the first time, four teams from Fairfield, saw stromboli rolled, pasta boiled and quesadillas grilled as students tried their recipes for a larger March competition.

As the grease bubbles settled and the stovetops idled, according to SATEC coach Jauna Berry, a team from Fairfield won “Mise en Place” with a maple poutine and Bakersfield’s team, the Bakersfield Bobcats, nabbed a “Best in Taste” award for their squash stromboli.

The two SATEC teams and the Bakersfield Bobcats will later compete in Jr Iron Chef VT competition on March 14 in Essex, where they will face up to another 80 schools vying for the title of “Junior Iron Chef.”

Winning teams, according to Jr Iron Chef VT, are judged on execution, teamwork, taste, creativity and how locally sourced their respective recipes, often picked by their coaches, are.

According to Jane Berry, who heads another of SATEC’s two teams, the Junior Iron Chef program, which requires all recipes to be vegetarian-friendly, helps introduce students to new foods and cooking skills they might not otherwise experience.

“It introduces them to things they wouldn’t normally eat,” Jane Berry, who has coached teams from several schools for nearly 15 years, said. “Once they cook them and eat them, they’ll think turnips are great.”

Rachel Huff, the Bakersfield team’s coach, agreed.

“If they’re going to prepare it, they’re going to eat it,” Huff said. “They all say they don’t like beets, they don’t like beets, but then this gives you exposure and helps them learn to eat.”

That was certainly the mindset for one team from Fairfield, the aptly titled Fairfield Cheese Masters, who were looking to disguise a healthy dose of broccoli with their macaroni and cheese.

“It’s mac and cheese with a twist,” said one of the team’s four chefs, Carson Cullen. “It’s simple!”

The four said they picked macaroni due to a mutual love of cheese, and, in the words of student chef Ashliy Perryman, “What’s more cheese than mac and cheese?”

Across the aisle from them, Bakersfield’s Junior Iron Chef team was in the middle of preparing their stromboli, a compromise dish from the pizza several members of the team said they had wanted to make.

All four members of the Bakersfield Bobcats, too busy to talk with an inquiring reporter, offered they had learned how to cook better as a result of their participation in Junior Iron Chef and, they agreed, they “learned how to work as a team.”

“For those kids who don’t find success at their desk, it’s a good alternative,” Huff said in between coaching sessions with Bakersfield’s prospective chefs.

According to Huff, their team had, since its founding “four or five years ago,” had made food for the rest of the students at the Bakersfield Elementary Middle School.

Each coach also noted the competition’s shared DNA with the farm to school initiative each respective school was already building on, with ingredients sometimes coming from local gardens and offering a chance for students to prepare healthier foods.

Thursday’s practice competition, the first held at SATEC, served as a test for the Fairfield Center School’s teams, providing a dry run for more formal teams next year.

According to Jauna Berry, a seventh and eighth grade special educator at SATEC who organized Thursday’s competition, Fairfield would likely come back next year with formal Junior Iron Chef teams to compete in the state contest in March.

“For the first time we’ve done it, this is fantastic,” Jauna Berry said. “It gave everybody a chance to try their recipes out... and see what it’s like for Fairfield.”

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