Team Hakuna Matata won the high school cook-off for the second time in three years. The team is made up of juniors Chelsea Schneider, Shannon Lozito, and Stevie Cunningham-Darrah, and coached by well-known local restaurateur Todd Darrah, of the Chelsea Royal Diner in Brattleboro. The winning dish was a south-of-the-border-inspired empanadas with pico de gallo creation.
Team Murdock also returned a winner from the statewide middle school competition, besting 38 other teams in the process. Iron Chef veteran Matt Murdock coaches the team. Seventh-graders Nick Nilsen, Kyle Murdock, DJ Lazelle, and Jake Cassese did the heavy lifting, preparing the ingredients for the dried cherry and root vegetable chili with potato pancakes.
“I’ve got such a big smile on my face it hurts,” said Darrah. “The girls have kept the same team since eighth grade. Going into it knowing what they know, that it takes a multi-component dish. It’s like going to the Final Four. They performed well and executed perfectly. It’s their fourth year and second win.
He added that he was surprised about Hakuna Matata’s win. “The middle school had already won,” said Darrah. “What were the odds of winning again?”
Murdock said his team stayed cool under pressure. “It was a lot of fun,” he said. “There was a lot of competition to go up against. They didn’t panic, everything we worked on they kept it together, stayed the same all the way through.” This was Murdock’s first trip to Burlington for the state finals, but his third time coaching a Jr. Iron Chef team. As for the recipe his team used, Murdock said “I had a couple of ideas and showed them to the team.” The students decided which recipes to use, and altered the ingredients to fit the Iron Chef criteria.
According to Murdock, his team had to change tactics on the fly. “At last practice, we found out we had to use the potato pancake as garnish, because they wouldn’t let us use two recipes.” Murdock said his solution was to split the four kids into two groups, with each working on an element of the complete dish. “ It’s great at that age to learn about cooking,” he added.
“We weren’t really expecting to win,” said Team Murdock member Lazelle. “It was a big surprise to us. The judges said it was really good. We had to practice for quite a few weeks.” Lazelle said he liked having Murdock as coach. “ We worked together really well. I worked on the celery root and potato pancakes.” When asked if he liked what he cooked, Lazelle said “I would eat it, it was really good.”
“It was really awesome,” said Kyle Murdock. “There were a lot of people there, which made me nervous.” When asked what it was like working with his father, Murdock said “The coach was good. We talked about it (at home) a little, about what we had to work on and do better.”
“It was fun,” said Cassese. “I was nervous. It was my first time there, and there were all kinds of people. Coach Matt helped a lot.” He added that he enjoyed working with his teammates, who he described as helpful. “I cut the onions and garlic, helped stir chili, and stuff . I’ll definitely do it again next year.”
“It was a great experience,” said Nilsen, “because kids get involved with cooking.” He also complimented coach Murdock. “Our coach is good, he was helpful. It’s really generous of them (coaches), because they don’t get paid, to go and do the competition.” Nilsen added that he and his teammates are friends and that working together was fun.
As for Hakuna Matata, even though the team members are veterans, they were still excited about their best-in-show award.
“We really went to have a good time, not to win,” said Schneider. “It was really exciting and unexpected. We all thought ours was really good, but you never know what the competition was.”
When asked what the team’s secret was, she said it was going back to what was tried and true. “The pico de gallo was really good, we used it the same year we won. We also used the same root vegetable mix.”
Cunningham-Darrah agreed with Schneider. “It was really unexpected. We already won,” she said. “We just love going up there. It was pretty awesome.” She also talked about their plan to “stick with the whole Mexican theme. Now we’ve won both times with it.” Cunningham-Darrah said her teammates are also her best friends. “We’ve had the same team since the first year and didn’t want to change the team. We all have close relationships and we’re good at taking criticism from each other.”
Lozito cited many of the same reasons as her teammates for Hakuna Matata’s success.
“Our recipe was inspired by us winning the first time. We incorporated the same veggie mixture,” said Lozito. “We’re just thrilled that we won best in show again. I was surprised, at first I didn’t think we had a chance of winning. As soon as I saw the final show plates, I thought we had a chance.”
Lozito said the team isn’t ready to rest on its laurels. “We’re hoping to come back next year. It’s our last year. We’ll keep the same kind of Spanish influence in our food.” She also said the team’s approach to the competition has evolved. “We mostly do it to have a great time. After winning our freshman year, we went in to have fun this year. To win again seems like we’re just excelling more. We’re critiquing our food, making it better.”
Lozito also complimented Darrah for his coaching and enthusiasm. She also said she might have to consider taking advantage of the multiple culinary scholarships she and her teammates have won with their two “best in show” awards. They each were awarded $1,000 scholarships to Paul Smith’s College, which has a renowned hospitality and culinary program. They were previously awarded $10,000 scholarships to the New England Culinary Institute. They were also awarded numerous cooking utensils and additional culinary school opportunities.
“The sweep was just unreal,” said local Jr. Iron Chef organizer Alonzo “Lonnie” Paige. “We were hopeful, but we didn’t expect that to happen.” According to Paige, the middle school competition was strong. There were 39 teams competing for the top three places. “When they put out all of the show plates,” said Paige, “it’s daunting.”
Paige said Twin Valley’s winning ways are all about the students. “The kids did a great job. More kids get into the having fun aspect, but in Burlington it gets a little more serious.” But he added that even the winners were ready for a good time. “Matt’s team had chili hats on, their attitude was, ‘If we win, wonderful, but that’s not what it all about.’”
Paige added that he believes one of the keys to winning cooking is the fact the student cooks make many of their items from scratch. “The kids are totally awesome. They’re making their own pasta and dough. There are no other teams doing that. They developed the recipes. It’s kid-driven, rather than a coach saying this is what you’ve got to do.”
In total, 39 middle school teams and 16 high school teams competed in the daylong event.
The team awarded the “most creative dish” for the middle schools was the Barre City Chefs from Barre City Elementary Middle School, with grilled Vermont root veggie cakes. Taking the award for “greatest number and best use of local ingredients” were the Barretown Bobcats, from Barretown Middle School, with “Save the Hen” nuggets with Nature’s Best barbecue sauce.
The high school level “most creative dish” went to the Food Fighters, from Centerpoint School in South Burlington, with “Blue Mash with Roots and Rings.” The “greatest number and best use of local ingredients” award went to the Rebels Chefs, from South Burlington High School, with veggie chili and cornbread topping.
Four other Twin Valley teams competed, two at the high school level and two at the middle school level. Middle school teams were J-Lee Stackmasters and Zeman’s Zing Zang from Twin Valley Middle, and Deliciousness and Hot and Dangerous from the high school.
Complete results, recipes, and photos of the event are available online at www.jrironchefvt.org. Organizers encourage use of the recipes, and invite web surfers to try them at home.
When asked what the secret is to Twin Valley’s amazing run of titles, Paige said “There is no formula for success. We roll with the punches and just try to have fun.” He said he was very excited to raise another championship banner at the high school. But he was also quick to credit all the teams that competed this year as one of the keys to winning cooking.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without all these teams trying,” Paige said. “Every coach and every team contributes to the total victory.”