When the school year started, the Little Dragons didn’t believe that mushrooms could taste like chicken.
But by the time they reached our Iron Go!Chefs competition this month, the seven students from our Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School presented the judges with mushroom adobo tacos – a recipe that they’d perfected after months of practice and preparation.
Iron Go!Chefs is the culmination of a yearlong Go!Chefs nutrition education program that schoolchildren from across the city participate in. During the school year, they learn foundational culinary skills, from slicing and dicing to sautéing and baking. They also learn about the importance of incorporating whole foods, fruits, and vegetables into their diets.
This year, during our 11th annual Iron Go!Chefs, teams from seven school-based afterschool programs in New York City competed to create the best vegetarian recipe in under one hour. In front of a local news crew and a crowd of dozens of family members and friends, the teams worked together to prepare recipes for a panel of prestigious judges.
“Iron Go!Chefs is an opportunity for our kids to show off all the skills they’ve learned during the year,” said Geronimo Branagan, the Go!Chefs program manager. “They’re always eager to impress the judges with their recipes.”
The games began even before the signature competition. Teams were invited to create their own infused water recipes, which were judged by the audience. And then they competed in a quiz game, answering multiple-choice questions related to their nutrition education over the course of the program.
“This event showcases that food education isn’t a niche topic, but rather encapsulates Children’s Aid’s whole child approach,” said Taisy Conk, Children’s Aid’s director of food and nutrition programs. “The classroom connections are in the literature and in the recipe calculations. After years of isolation from other young people, the intensive prep for the competition built back students’ social emotional skills. As we gathered all together across sites, the competitors’ energy in the Frederick Douglass gym was electric.”
For the main event, teams were asked to create recipes based on books they’d been reading. The students drew inspiration from titles as diverse as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” to Lynne Barasch’s “Hiromi’s Hands.” The Little Dragons took their recipe – and their team name – from “Dragons Love Tacos” by Adam Rubin. Some recipes were pulled directly from the texts, while others required creative cooking from the students.
Each recipe was required to be vegetarian, and the students had to use fresh, whole ingredients. The final dishes included the mushroom tacos as well as jackfruit tacos; grilled cheese and tomato soup; hand-rolled veggie sushi; lo mein noodles; a plantain pastelón; and a broccoli pastelón.
The students worked side by side for the allotted hour, practicing proper skills from washing their hands before getting started to protecting their hands while using knives. They were assisted and supervised by teachers and other adults who managed the program throughout the year. When they were ready, they raised a paddle and then presented their meals to the judges.
“It can be competitive, which is a good thing,” Branagan said. “We want the students to be proud of what they’re able to do in the kitchen.”
After they’d sampled each dish, the panel of judges evaluated the teams based on presentation and taste. They also gave out awards for outstanding qualities such as teamwork, healthiness, and innovation.
The Cherry Blossoms won the overall middle school competition, and The Little Dragons and their mushroom tacos won the overall elementary school prize, giving those students yet another reason to love mushrooms.