By Matthew Saari
Iron Chef competitions have more than 20 years of rich history, noble tradition, rigorous rivalries and superbly concocted culinary delights. Many chefs may enter an Iron Chef, but only one will emerge with the coveted title, accolades and of course prize money.
Of course, with so much fame and fortune on the line, only the most discerning and accredited of critics can sit in judgment of the finished cuisine.
So when I received a priority phone call from Whitehall school cafeteria manager Deb Mackey requesting my participation as one of five carefully screened and selected judges I felt honored, immediately after I asked what I would be eating…and judging.
Five teams, each consisting of four students and one faculty advisor, competed against one another to craft the most delectable pasta dish. All of the ingredients were provided to each team beforehand and the dish had to be crafted in 30 minutes or less. In an added twist, each team was placed under the same strict guidelines public schools must adhere to under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.
I sat shoulder to shoulder with four other renowned veterans of victual consumption including Elizabeth Hoffman, Penny Hollister, Justin Millett and superintendent Patrick Dee.
Obviously having been chosen to sit with such prestigious patrons of dining, I was feeling nervous; figurative butterflies fluttering about my innards during the drive to the competition hall.
Upon arrival, I quickly learned where the action was: the kitchen. The five teams, each consisting of four students and one faculty advisor, had commandeered Mackey’s kitchen and were well into their art, crafting their courses.
Ingredients, spices, and utensils were spread across nearly every surface. The tension in the room was quite real, tangible even; so thick one could slice it with a Ginsu knife.
Added to the organized chaos were Mackey’s personnel, who didn’t allow the competition to prevent them from carrying on their daily duties of serving up lunch to the high school at large. As the great musical group Queen once said “The Show Must Go On.”
The integrity of the competition was being strictly enforced throughout all stages. When Hoffman and I attempted to sneak into the kitchen to observe the chefs at work, Mackey quickly shooed the two of us out, adamant that the judges should not be able to associate names and faces with the dishes lest personal feelings enter into the decisions. Hoffman and I retreated quickly thereafter.
As the dishes emerged from the depths of the kitchen one by one, the judges grew more and more anxious, their appetites agitated by the sight and smell of five succulent courses but not being able to sample them.
Dish one was Chicken Alfredo; dish two was Penne a la Mocka; dish three was Creamy, Stringy Pasta Primavera; dish four was Roasted Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese; dish five was Chicken and Broccoli Alfredo.
Once the judges had an opportunity to survey the presentation, the main event began: the critics started devouring the samples.
I cannot and will not reveal my patented judging technique however I will say I started with dish one and ended with number five. And I devoured each sampling wholeheartedly.
It soon became readily apparent that the contest would be close.
“Which one do you like so far,” a student asked.
“I was all for number one, not for originality but for presentation and taste,” Millett said.
“The Chicken Alfredo was my favorite tasting,” Dee agreed.
“They were all really good. I like number four; the presentation and the taste,” Hoffman declared. “It’s going to be tough.”
Kyle Welch, a student in the high school who somehow managed to get his hands on a sample also chose number one as his favorite citing “Just the texture of it, it tastes good.”
However taste alone would not carry the day. Each dish was graded on a scale of 1-5 in three categories: taste, originality and presentation.
After much deliberation the judges transcribed their numerical grades and submitted them to the master of the kitchen, Mackey.
“It was a cutthroat competition,” Millett, who recorded much of day’s events on camera, said afterwards.
While the results were being tallied, the chefs paced about anxiously in the cafeteria.
“Ahh…I’m so excited,” Kia Rockwell, one of the chefs, exclaimed.
Then high school principal Jeff Keller emerged from the kitchen office and declared the winners.
Team four claimed the win with their Roasted Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese, ringing up a total of 61 points.
Team four narrowly beat out team five by a mere two points, due to originality.
Nicole Valastro, team four’s faculty advisor credits the win to the team’s use of roasted vegetables.
“We wanted to shy away from what we thought other people would do,” she said.
Rockwell said the team had been roasting vegetables all morning.
While the other teams all included some form of sauce with their dish, team four boldly chose to forgo the dressing.
“Pretty much all pasta tastes the same, so you have to spice it up somehow,” Valastro said.
In addition to being named Whitehall’s Iron Chefs, team four received two $25 gift cards and the honor of having their dish added to the school’s menu.
Due to the immense participation – there were originally only going to be four teams but there were enough volunteers to form a fifth – there are plans of hosting another competition in the future. Valastro said the next competition wouldn’t occur until next school year, possibly around Homecoming and would focus on either comfort food or tailgating.
Team four consisted of Valastro, Rockwell, Victoria Davis, Josie Lavin and Susanne Dumas.