When you stir together six teen chefs and a farmers’ market, then add a pinch of ambition, you’ve got the ingredients for a real competition.
Casual produce buyers at the Olathe Farmers’ Market got a taste of the excitement, if not the actual dishes, last Saturday as part of the Country Chef Challenge, in which contestants use fresh ingredients from the market to create a dish in front of a live audience for a chance to be named Master of the Market.
Sponsored by Country Financial, this competition has gone on in Chicago, Minneapolis and Portland, but in Olathe, it’s students, not professional chefs, who have been the competitors.
The teens, all part of the culinary program for the Olathe School District, were the top three teams from the previous week’s competition. This time, things got real as they competed for scholarship money.
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A panel of four judges included Jason Matthews, EBT’s executive chef; Carol Kruse of DuPont Nutrition and Health; Eddie Adel of the Johnson County Community College culinary school, and John Andrade of Olathe Parks and Recreation. They rated the dishes on flavor, presentation, adaptability and skill displayed.
“This is fun, because I was them once. I know they’re just at the front side of a vast world of knowledge,” said Matthews. “My biggest fear is that one of them will end up taking my job.”
Teaming up over the stoves were Maggie Lawlor and Sarah Schreiber of Olathe North; Michael Miller and Greyson Vas of Olathe South, and Christina Zemencik and Gabrielle Krump of Olathe Northwest and North.
They gathered under a large tent, ingredients in coolers and pans sizzling on portable stoves outside the Olathe Community Center, next to various produce venders. The teams got a staggered start, with 15 minutes in-between them and a total of 45 minutes cooking time each.
Farmers’ market vendors supplied the produce for the competition.
Teacher and chef Mike Chrostowski said one of the bigger challenges is cooking in the elements, where a gust of wind can send things flying. In previous years, the competition has taken place in the rain.
In the initial round of competition, Sarah said she had to put up a foil shield around her team’s burner to protect it from the wind.
“The hot oil? It’s not pleasant (in the wind), but you know what? That’s part of the challenge,” she said.
If it seems early in the school year to be having a competition, it really is. Christina and Gabrielle have only been in the culinary program a few weeks, while the other two teams have a year of instruction under their belts.
“There’s people standing two feet away from you (watching),” said Christina. “It’s fun, but there’s a totally different feeling to it” than cooking behind the scenes in a kitchen.
As the seconds ticked by in the makeshift kitchens, one competitor called out for the time remaining. They had just 10 minutes until they were done. Gabrielle carefully scooped out jalapeno seeds for her team’s gumbo, as Michael and Greyson chopped onions and peaches to complement their duck.
“The ultimate goal is to try to step it up with the ingredients and spices,” said Maggie. “It’s a challenge to get the Southern flavors right (in the gumbo.) Last week, we went a little more spicy, and we’re going to dial it down a bit.”
Plating the three delicacies — braised chicken on eggplant and potato puree, okra and duck gumbo and spicy gumbo with crabcake — is an art of its own. Michael and Greyson’s plates had a mound of okra gumbo with two medallions of duck carefully perched on top.
As Michael spooned on sauce, Greyson wiped away any drips that splashed onto already completed plates.
The unusual activity and the growing scent wafting from the tent drew a crowd of several dozen onlookers.
“It’s awesome to watch them with their knife skills and find out what they’re interested in,” said Olathe resident Judy Amspacker. “That they cook with local ingredients is cool.”
Taking first and $800 each in scholarship money were Maggie and Sarah with their spicy gumbo. Michael and Greyson’s duck was in second place, and Christina and Gabrielle’s chicken took third. All of the second- and third-place winners received $400 individually.