If you’ve ever watched Chopped on the Food Network, you know how it works. Participating chefs have 20 minutes to create a dish out of a basket of “mystery ingredients.” The clock starts ticking as soon as the contestants see the ingredients.
In the case of the cook-off at Fort Bend ISD’s Dulles High School in Sugar Land, there are eleven teams comprised of the cafeteria managers of some of the district’s schools and culinary school students.
Danita Brown is in charge of the cafeteria at Oyster Creek Elementary in Sugar Land.
“It gives you some creative ideas of what to do in the kitchen, even with garnishes, giving you some ideas and not to think the same when it comes to non-vegetarian options and stuff like that.”
Stephanie Kellam is the school wellness coordinator for United Healthcare’s Activate for Kids program at Fort Bend ISD. She says she initiated the “Chopped” challenge last year in response to new federal regulations, which required more healthful food options at schools. One challenge for cafeteria workers was to make healthful foods appealing to the children.
“So for the first time in a lot of years, they felt very stressed. They used to love their job, and it was becoming a lot more work because there was transition, new training, those kinds of things. So we wanted to create something that was fun and exciting for them and highlight them as chefs and not just as cafeteria workers or cafeteria ladies.”
And the concept seems to work. Kellam says last year’s winner compared it to winning the lottery and said it was the best thing that ever happened to her in her life.
“And this year we’ve seen a lot of excitement around it again, a lot of new people coming on to try it out. They want to showcase how they’re creative, showcase their skills and then also showcase how much they love their job, and how much fun it is to work for kids and come up with a fun meal for the kids as well.”
This year’s winning team was Annie Hernandez, cafeteria manager at Hodges Bend Middle School, and Lorena Zuniga of Marshall High School. Hernandez says when she saw the ingredients, she knew immediately what she was going to make.
“The 20 minutes went really fast, but as soon as I saw that it was kale and salmon, I said, fish tacos.”
And those fish tacos, which also include carrots, mandarin oranges and Panko bread crumbs, will be part of the menu for the next school year.