It’s astonishingly quiet in Lanphier’s kitchen lab. But not actually silent. Students in the four kitchen cubicles are talking to each other. They’re also responding to questions from the adults observing them. But none of the students – not one – is fooling around or engaging in the boisterous banter that can occur when adolescents are in a non-formal classroom setting. It’s the kind of quietness that happens when people of any age work together, focusing on their task.
Welcome to Lanphier High School’s Third Annual Iron Chef Competition. Sixty-one students in three Food 101 sections have been divided into four teams per class, competing to become the Iron Chefs of their respective classes.
“Iron Chef,” a competitive cooking television show, aired in Japan from 1992-1999. Three master chefs, each specializing in different cuisines, took on challengers in a one-hour “battle” to see “whose cuisine reigns supreme.” Reruns were popular on the Food Network and in 2004 the Food Network gave Americans “our own Kitchen Stadium and our own Iron Chefs.” It’s shtick, bigtime – the Iron Chefs standing proudly, grimly on their podiums, arms defiantly crossed, fog swirling around them, as they wait for the challenger who emerges from a curtain of more fog and strides forth to “choose” an Iron Chef to battle. Each episode revolves around a “secret” theme ingredient, unveiled in a giant sarcophagus, lid rising to the ceiling, while still more fog swirls around it. The chefs’ creations are tasted by a three-judge panel, some food-knowledgeable, others not. They award up to 10 points for taste, and up to 5 each for presentation and originality in the use of the secret ingredient.
Shtick it may be, but it’s also entertaining, fascinating – often even educational – to watch what the dueling chefs create and how they go about it.
In Lanphier’s kitchen lab, there’s no swirling fog. But there’s plenty of excitement and enthusiasm. This year the “secret” ingredient is bacon, revealed ahead of time so the students could search for and/or develop recipes. (It’s not a total secret on the televised “Iron Chef” either; contestants are given four possibilities ahead of time.) The students found most of their recipes online. Some were followed exactly; others were modified, improvised and, in some cases, combined.
Countdown begins the week of the competition, which takes place on Friday. By the end of Wednesday’s class, each team finalizes their recipes, decides what to prep on Thursday, and assigns specific tasks for Thursday prep and Friday’s competition. Most importantly, each team completed its shopping list. All ingredients would be bought that night: if a team’s list left out anything crucial, tough luck!
The driving force behind Lanphier’s Iron Chef 2011 – and the reason the students are so engaged – is Family and Consumer Science teacher Chelsey Brewer. The department was in the doldrums with dwindling enrollments when she began there as the only teacher for classes ranging from cooking, sewing, family life and consumer education. Three years later, the program utilizes three teachers and an aide. “I tell you, she’s really built this program up,” says assistant principal Brian Caton. Demand for FCS classes continues to grow. Longtime teacher Steve Rambach says “I used to help plan kids’ schedules. Thankfully I’m not doing that anymore. It would be too hard to try to fit in everybody wanting to take her classes.”
Brewer backed into teaching. She’d gotten a hospitality management undergraduate degree and a consumer science master’s, intending to open her own restaurant. But startup costs can be overwhelming; getting teaching certification was a backup. Today, having a restaurant is still a dream. “But I don’t know if I could ever leave these kids,” she says.
Brewer’s skill and enthusiasm elevated Lanphier’s Family and Consumer Science enrollment. But the supply budget hasn’t kept pace; there’s only $1,000 yearly for 14 classes combined. For the Iron Chef competition, she successfully applied for a grant from the Springfield Public Schools Foundation. Brewer also persuaded MJ Kellner Food Service to donate the (exceptionally good) bacon, and Primo Designs to make and donate winners’ T-shirts.
On Friday, Dec. 9, the first class (third hour) is gearing up for battle. One group is making pasta with bacon, asparagus and parmesan. None of the five-member team had previously eaten asparagus; some had no idea what it was.
The next team prepared woven bacon baskets filled with polenta, topped with egg and cheese, accompanied by a spinach salad. It was a gutsy move: if the “baskets” slid out without breaking the egg yolks or disturbing the bacon weave, the dish would be gorgeous; if not, it would be a total mess. They nailed it.
Perfect crpes aren’t easily made without practice. My jaw dropped as Jessica Vonachen, looking as if she’d been doing it for years, poured in exactly the right amount of batter, swirled it around to cover the pan’s bottom, then flipped each crpe up and over. Had she practiced at home? “No,” she replied. “This is the first time I’ve made them.” But Vonachen wasn’t the only one responsible for her team’s dish: other team members prepared the bacon, cheese and mushroom filling, a spinach salad, and the egg-thickened lemon sauce – a Greek avgolemono that’s even trickier to pull off than crpes.
In each class, one team made burger variations. But they didn’t just do burgers; they also made hand-cut, skin-on French fries, using the classic twice-fried method. Housemade sauces were also prepared; one of the judges said he’d gladly take a bath in one team’s spicy ranch sauce – “We kind of made it up ourselves,” said team leader Emunnee Day. Their vinegar/salt fries were also especially good.
That second class (fifth hour) was the largest – from five to seven on each team. Entries included Chicken and Bacon Quesadillas with Mexican-flavored rice, Fettucini Carbonara (with house-made pasta), and Crispy Bacon-wrapped Chicken with Three-Cheese Risotto and an Arugula/apple salad, as well as the above-mentioned burgers.
As with the third-hour competition, five (different) judges – mostly faculty members – circulated, watching the action and asking questions about what and how they were doing. Then came judgment. After presenting its dish, each team faced the judges. There were well-deserved compliments on their teamwork, and questions about the dish. What was it composed of? How was it made? How did they decide what to make?
And there were compliments on the food itself and requests for recipes. “That Mexican rice – could I have the recipe so my wife could make it? Or maybe you could come over and make it for us?” asked Rambach.
The last class (seventh hour) included student-made cheese ravioli dressed with bacon and onions, topped with beautifully crisped bacon spirals; Louisville Hot Brown Sandwiches (close cousins to Springfield horseshoes); pasta dressed with an oil-based shrimp/bacon condiment, accompanied by garlic knots – bacon-infused dough twists brushed with garlic butter; and brined, bacon-wrapped pork chops drizzled with housemade caramel atop caramelized apples, accompanied by a warm potato “salad.”
Judging was based on teamwork (10 points), creative use of the “secret” ingredient (20 points) and taste and execution (20 points). An award is also given for best kitchen sanitation.
I sometimes get annoyed when student competitions are so touchy-feely that everyone gets a prize, even if their participation has been halfhearted and lazy. But after spending two days with Lanphier’s Iron Chef students, I think they should all get medals. Sure, mistakes were made, and some dishes were better than others. But each was good, more than edible. In fact, every recipe requested by the judges was for preparations that didn’t win. Every single student participated and was fully engaged, from those with no previous cooking experience to some who cook at home daily. I was impressed by them all, and in awe of Brewer, who made it happen.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Winners of Lanphier’s Third
Annual Iron Chef Competition
Bacon, Cheese, and Mushroom Crpes
Gregory Nwajei, Jasmine Ross, Shunderika Price, Jessica Vonachen, Lindsay Banks
Crispy Bacon-Wrapped Chicken on a Three-Cheese Risotto with Arugula Apple Salad
Jill Robinson, Melanie Beavers, Sierra Fields, Darius Millican, Jarius Harris. Jelissa Price, Kenika Drake
Brined Bacon-Wrapped Pork Chops with Caramel Sauce, Caramelized Apples and Warm Potato Salad
Hailea Rabideau, Steve Collins, Ryshima Sutton, Brittany O’Neal