Student chef competition delivers healthy choices, diverse recipes


Preslee Sims carries her Mini Muffins to the oven. Sims was the District Winner of the LHISD Future Chefs Competition last week. (Dana Delgado)

By Dana Delgado

The annual Liberty Hill Independent School District Future Chef Competition brought out some truly diverse recipes this year.

“It was a new theme that brought out a lot of creative recipes,” said district Child Nutrition Services Manager Mary Sheffield. “We received two gluten free recipes and the other recipes included beans and a variety of vegetables.”

Six students, selected from a field of 50 district contestants in grades three through five, put forth their best “Healthy Comfort Food” before judges for the opportunity to advance to the regional competition. True to the competition’s mission, the foods were healthy focused, but served up a variety of twists that included entries that ranged from sweet treats, to quesadillas, to an Asian dish.

The competitors assembled in the cafeteria kitchen at Bill Burden Elementary School on March 2. For nearly 45 minutes, student participants, with the assistance of Culinary Arts students from Liberty Hill High School and staff members from Child Nutrition Services, patiently prepared their entries.

After the preparation time, students brought out their comfort food to be evaluated by the judges, LHHS Culinary Arts teacher Kathy Becker, John Clark of Farmers Insurance, and LHISD Assistant Superintendent Toni Hicks. Each student’s entry was judged on a variety of things including taste, healthy ingredients and presentation.

Students reacted in different ways to the competition process. Cameron Yeargain, in her first year competing, felt things went well.

“We had good teamwork,” said the third grader from Mrs. Water’s class at Bill Burden Elementary School. “I was kind of nervous out in front of people, but it was fun and I really love to cook, especially breakfast things like pancakes and eggs.”

Emerson Oliver, a fifth grade student from the Intermediate School, said she was excited about competing after trying unsuccessfully two years ago to get into the competition.

“It went smoothly,” Emerson said. “I like baking a lot.”

Jenna Ahmad, who was in her first contest ever, was “a little afraid but got confidence from her friends who wished her ‘good luck.’”

“I felt great and my cookies tasted real good,” Jenna said. “It was hard because of all the baking and all the hard work.”

Another contestant, Lilly Blake said, “It was really scary and nerve-wracking. I had to make 50 samples, but I was amazed that I did it. I cook a lot at home and I’ve always wanted to be a chef.”

Daniel Cecilio Salazar Diaz, a fifth grade student in his first competition, said that he’s always been inspired to be a chef.

“I had a dream about it,” he said. “I was a little nervous but really liked the taste, the look, and the smell of my comfort food. It was a lot of fun preparing it.”

After close scrutiny and multiple taste trials, the judges announced winners in different categories as well as the district winner.

Winning for “Originality” was Emerson Oliver for her Mashed Potato Mash-up Recipe.

Jenna Ahmad won the “Kid Friendly” Award for her Gluten Free Peanut Butter Recipe while Cameron Yeargain claimed the “Healthy Attributes” Award with her Grilled Chicken Parmesan Recipe.

The “Presentation Award” went to Lilly Blake with her Mushu’s Moo Shu Recipe.

Danny Cecilio Salazar Diaz received the “Best Taste” Award for his Health Quesadilla Recipe.

Preslee Sims, with her Mini Muffins Recipe, was named the District Winner.

“I didn’t expect to win, but I practiced a lot at home,” Preslee said. “My mom told me to be sure to get my measurements right and to make a good presentation. I was surprised, but my mini muffins were healthy and tasted like a treat.”

Preslee is the daughter of Mike and Erin Sims.

Her recipe will now be considered for a regional finalist award. The selected regional finalist will compete for one of five national finalists. LHISD is expected to be notified in April if Preslee’s recipe is chosen to advance.

“Through my five years at Liberty Hill, I have seen the students’ excitement about the competition grow,” said Sheffield.  “We have had an increase in the number of entries each year.  We have also seen the recipes evolve to become more healthy and include more fruits and vegetables.”

The Future Chef competition was established by Sodexo, the cafeteria management company contracted by the school district, to interest students in making healthy food choices while also encouraging them to get active and creative in the kitchen.