Lorna Allen has spent a lot of time around kids as a cook in Elgin Area School District U-46, but Saturday was the first time she actually worked with them closely.
Allen was among the U-46 cooks who volunteered to coach teams of middle schoolers during the Junior Chopped culinary competition held at South Elgin High School, the first of its kind at the district.
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"I've been cooking for about 40 years, including in the Army, and I really enjoyed working with the kids," she said. "I saw how their imagination works, and how they cook with new items. I hope to do it more."
Staff from the district's nutrition services department and faculty from the career and technical education department teamed up for the event, in which eight teams from each of the district's middle schools squared off to prepare dishes judged by a panel of chefs.
The students, all eighth-graders, had taken at least one semester of the family and consumer services rotation class. The Junior Chopped event was inspired by the Food Network show by the same name.
The competition consisted of three rounds -- snack, breakfast and lunch -- during which the three-member teams got baskets of common ingredients, a secret ingredient and recipe suggestions.
Competitor Ryan Chanthavong, whose Ellis Middle School team made it to the second round, said it was hard, though fun.
"I think to win you have to have really good team work and communicate with the workers. You have to listen to each other's advice and ideas," said Ryan, whose team's repeated use of blueberries as a garnish was criticized by judges.
The Swaggy Choppers team from Kimball Middle School ended up eking out a narrow victory over The Cupcakes from Larsen Middle School.
The judges praised the Mediterranean and Italian flavors the winning team used in their final lunch dish.
Kimball competitor Martin Bello said his team at first was going to make an omelette, but went with scrambled eggs because they didn't have the proper pan.
"A lot of people think it's stressful because you're under pressure," he said. "I thought it was actually really fun because it's not like it was going to decide my whole life. So I had fun with it."
Martin's mother, Ana Bello, said she was really happy he participated. He always helps her in the kitchen and especially likes to bake cookies, she said.
"If they are really into it and interested, they can become great chefs. It can be a path for the future," she said.