Home News and Features Cooking Up a Future: Orchard Valley’s Jr Iron Chef Team

Cooking Up a Future: Orchard Valley’s Jr Iron Chef Team

From left: Jacob Sherman, Laurel Tackett-Yatteau, Dasha Becherer, Eva Maker, Penelope Carrier, Orchard Valley Waldorf students, after practicing their recipe for Jr Iron Chef VT. Photo by Mary Cole Mello.
On this late winter afternoon, one classroom in the Orchard Valley Waldorf  School is filled with the fragrance of garlic, basil, and tomatoes simmering on a stove. Jacob Sherman keeps a critical eye on the sauce he’s stirring while Laurel Tackett-Yatteau, Eva Maker, Penelope Carrier and Dasha Becherer try to keep the flour from flying as they roll out “ropes” of potato gnocchi dough. Their coach, Madelief Welters, watches serenely from the sidelines. Welters is also an administrative director at the private East Montpelier school and the five students are members of the school’s Jr Iron Chef VT team. They’ll be demonstrating their culinary skills at the 16th Annual Jr Iron Chef competition on March 9.

Thirty-nine other teams will gather with them at the Champlain Valley Exposition’s Blue Hall in Essex Junction, each hoping their dish will win the hearts and taste buds of the judges. Vermont students from sixth grade through high school will be competing for awards in three categories: Crowd Pleaser (best example of color, taste and texture), Lively Local (best highlighting of local foods) and Mise en Place (exemplary teamwork, order and professionalism).

Since the winning recipes must feature Vermont products, the Orchard Valley team is using produce from local farmers and products, such as Strafford Organic Creamery and Cabot Creamery. Ingredients include eggs from the school’s chickens and garlic from the Orchard Valley garden.

 Every Jr Iron Chef team must come up with its own name and uniform. In a nod to their recipe (Gnocchi in a Vegetable Cream Sauce with Pesto Swirl), the Orchard Valley team christened themselves “The Peculiar Potato Peelers.” For uniforms, the team chose dark gray aprons with the school logo and black and white caps. 

Their first step, however, was to create something original. Penelope explains, “We found (a recipe) online and then we made changes.” Once they perfected the new recipe, the challenge was to practice until they could turn the whole thing out in 90 minutes, a competition requirement.

 So they cook and clean up, then do it all over again … and again. Why do these kids want to spend their precious after school hours this way?

“It’s fun to experiment with different kinds of foods. I never knew how to make gnocchi before,” says Eva. 

“I never liked tomatoes before,” adds Penelope.

Dasha notes, “I always loved baking.” She was hooked on the Jr Iron Chef competition from the time she was six years old and saw her older sister compete. 

But Jr Iron Chef is not just about competition. Laurel enjoys the experience itself, “It’s fun cooking with my friends and laughing with them … (now) my family asks me to do some of the cooking. I make soup and crepes.”

Jr Iron Chef VT began in 2008 with the help of the Farm to School movement, the Burlington School Food program and Vermont FEED. The nonprofit, Vermont Afterschool, now hosts the event. 

Nicole Miller, Executive Director of Vermont Afterschool notes, “Jr Iron Chef VT empowers youth by giving them opportunities to build their leadership, teamwork and communication skills, all while keeping them engaged and safe during out-of-school hours.” 

The emphasis on learning to cook with local products, to try new foods and to experiment with recipes has encouraged several of the “potato peelers” to think about  careers in the culinary arts. Eva and Penelope want to become chefs while Laurel is considering running a restaurant. In the beginning, Dasha was also planning to become a chef but she’s having second thoughts. 

“Now I think I’d like to be a cosmetologist … I love working with hair,” she says with the easy confidence of an 11-year-old who looks forward to all the choices life may offer.

For now, however, the team is thinking mainly of the approaching competition.” We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Laurel. “We’re more efficient. I think we have a chance to win.”