Top notch cook-off
Fifth-grader Melissa Buehler from Tom McCall Upper Elementary School took home the first-place prize in Forest Grove's "Top Chef"-style competition with her steamed salad in peanut sauce, earning a spot in the regional competition.
Fourteen elementary school finalists from around the Forest Grove School District competed for the top spot in the cook-off at Tom McCall Friday afternoon, March 9. With an Asian cuisine theme, the students' creations were judged on their creativity, taste, presentation, healthiness, kid-friendly level and easiness to make. Melissa's vegetarian dish of warm steamed vegetables and a sweet, homemade peanut sauce wowed the judges — and Melissa herself.
Her jaw dropped in disbelief as her name was announced and all the other students clapped in support of their fellow chef.
"I feel great," Melissa said, almost at a loss for words.
Melissa's mother, Vivian Surya Buehler, said the unexpected win has been a big self-esteem booster for her daughter.
"That day, Melissa (and I) did not expect in a million years that she would win the first prize," said Buehler in an email Monday. "Melissa's food was very humble and simple, in fact, it took less than 20 (minutes) to prep. She spent most of her time helping her friend next to her, didn't think she had any chance to win at all."
From "ocean pizza" to "Asian bowtie pasta" to "wontonators," each student's creativity shined through their original recipe.
"It is one of our favorite things to do," said Lacey Hydee, operations manager of Forest Grove School District's nutrition services. "It's really great to have people with different cooking abilities come out, and the final product is so great."
Students got to work with cooking professionals from around the district when needed, but most of the work was done by these young chefs as they prepared their ingredients, cooked them and then raced the clock in order to present their dishes as best as they could.
Wearing their tall chef hats, long aprons, and T-shirts all supplied by Sodexo, some students looked nervous as the judges tasted their product. Others danced to the music and were confident they had the winning concoction.
"A small portion of this is nutritional education, when we ask for the recipes, we ask for them to be healthy, (but) it's really a great time to kind of learn from each other and just some skills," Hydee said. "Even if they don't walk away with the prize, if all they take away from this is the experience, and just the stuff we supply them with, and then the knowledge that they learned here ... I think that's something that they will remember for a while."
Melissa will submit her recipe to regional judges, who will pick the top five from around the region for a YouTube cooking video to submit for nationals.
In addition to her spot in the regional competition, Melissa also won a camera, Fitbit and cooking supplies.
Last year, the national winner was from the Canby School District, so Hydee is hoping to keep it local again.
Madi Bigej, a fourth-grader at Ninety-One School, won the 2017 Future Chef competition with her recipe for cauliflower tots. The theme that year was "healthy comfort food."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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