It was a battle of culinary skills at Alexandria Area High School Tuesday night as a handful of three-person groups competed in the first-ever Jr. Iron Chef Challenge.

The teams, made up of two middle school students and an area chef, prepared a meal in the high school culinary arts kitchen as the public watched through the glass wall or on the large television screen in the commons area.

The competition was complete with a moderator and judges, just like the Food Network television show, “Iron Chef.” In addition, each team had to incorporate the same two ingredients into the dish of their choice.

The ingredients were buttercup squash, locally produced by Country Blossom Farm in Alexandria, and ground turkey from Ferndale Farms in Cannon Falls.

Two awards were given at the end of the competition:

  • The “Mise en place” award, which means everything in its place. This award was given to the team that showed exemplary teamwork, order and professionalism.

  • The Judges Choice award, which was the top honor, given to the team that received the highest score from the judges.

This year’s Judges Choice winner was Creative Culinary Kids, featuring Chef Matt Ohren from The Garden Bar on 6th, who was paired with sixth-graders Ellie Sticha and Rylen Schmitz.

In addition to their award, the team’s winning dish – bacon-wrapped meatloaf with a squash puree, steamed green beans and a buttercup squash custard with toasted marshmallows for dessert – will be added to the Alexandria Public Schools lunch menu.

“The most challenging part of the competition was that the girls wanted to make a dessert, which I think ended up setting us apart from the other teams,” said Ohren. “It was a well-deserved win for Ellie and Rylen. The girls rocked it in the kitchen.”

B.F. Chefs – featuring Chef Matthew Jensen, owner of La Ferme, and seventh-graders Faith Odland and Ellen Sansted – were the winners of the Mise en place award.

The three other teams were:

The 3 Musketeers – Chef Tanner Hinz from The Boulder Tap House was paired with sixth-graders Luke Christenson and Lars Dahl.

Long Legged Sheep – Chef Andrew Bogenrief from The Lure was paired with eighth-graders Josie Hochsprung and Olivia Reilly.

Cooking Cards – Chef Jen Pastian from Pike and Pint Grill was paired with seventh-graders Raif Johnson and Samantha Skarka.

Passion for food

Ohren said working with Sticha and Schmitz was a “blast from day one.” The girls wanted to push the envelope in what they did, and that is something he said most chefs do every day.

“Seeing young people with a passion for food is amazing and reminds me of when I was their age cooking with my grandmas and my parents,” said Ohren.

During the competition, even in stressful situations, he said his team was joking, laughing and having fun, and that’s what events like this are about.

And even though they were having fun, Ohren said the girls were never scared to jump right in and tackle everything and anything.

“It seemed like we have worked together before, but we had only met once before the competition,” he said.

Ohren enjoyed seeing professional chefs working with and teaching students how to cook good food from scratch. Even though they were competing, he said if one of the chefs or students couldn’t find something, the others stepped up to the plate and helped each other out.

All of the chefs were there to make sure the kids had a great experience, were involved, and of course, had fun.

When the name of their team was announced, Sticha and Schmitz squealed with excitement, hugging each other and giving their mentor high-fives. The two young chefs kept saying, “I can’t believe we won,” as the biggest smiles were spread across their face.

“It always feels good to win, but even if we didn’t, it was one of the best experiences working with the younger generation on cooking homemade food from scratch,” Ohren said. “It was an honor to be a part of the Jr. Iron Chef Challenge and I can’t wait for the next one.”

Tough to judge

Judges for the challenge were: Janice Larson, owner of Llama Cakes; Rob Rodas, director of culinary services at Grand Arbor; and Shannon Parent, the catering/culinary operations coordinator for Alexandria Public Schools. Judging was based on whether the dish would be adaptable to serve as a school lunch menu item, flavor, presentation, creativity and teamwork.

Larson said the winning dish from the Creative Culinary Kids team was a “cohesive dish with lots of elements.” She also described the side dish as “unbelievably good” and the dessert was “over the top.”

Parent said overall the whole meal was “very delicious” and the dessert was “heavenly.”

Rodas said he loved it and thought the way Sticha was weaving the bacon around the meatloaf was “very cool.”

All three judges made comments about the dessert putting them over the top.

The judges all commented that they were impressed with the creativity of each team, and told the groups it was tough to judge because all the dishes tasted great.