Using carrots as the secret ingredient and pears as a last-minute surprise, culinary students from Riverview and Durant high schools put their cooking talents to work recently, emulating celebrity chefs.
With $1,200 in kitchenware on the line for their schools, the Iron Chef competition had the students flipping, frying and frosting in a frenzy.
The culinary chaos at the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium reached a hard boil as the teams prepared appetizers, entrees and desserts, then settled to a low simmer as foodie judges tasted each dish. Riverview High was deemed the winner by a thin margin.
"We practiced during the week at school and at each others' houses," said Riverview team member Martin Gendron, a senior who has been involved in several prior cooking competitions.
The Riverview team, which also included seniors Ryan Allers and Travis Gentile, whipped up an appetizer of tuna tartare, carrot pesto and kimchi, which Gentile said typically takes three days – not 45 minutes – to prepare.
For the entrée, Riverview served seared top round steak with carrot risotto and carrot pesto, topped with grilled asparagus. And for dessert, the team presented a carrot bread pudding with a pear-infused whipped cream.
"The pear really worked out for us because we needed a sweet element," Gendron said.
Durant team member Abby Arellano, a junior, said she and her team members took what they had learned in culinary class and infused it with some recipes from the Web, tweaking them for the competition.
Durant's team, which also included seniors Ryan Rosa, Kaitlyn Flynn and Yonaira Melendez, produced a carrot fritter and sauce for the appetizer. As an entrée, the team created its own take on coconut shrimp – using shredded carrot, instead – with a carrot-ginger sauce and jasmine rice. And for dessert, the team created a caramel-apple style cupcake, with a pear and carrot cake, injected with a cream cheese filling.
"It's been a little nerve-wracking getting ready for this," Flynn said. "But after practicing, we felt a little more confident."
Once the two teams arrived at the Rolling Pin kitchen, they immediately began to prep their ingredients, measuring, chopping and blending. The students took full advantage of the commercial kitchen filled with all the latest gadgets for preparing and cooking food.
Melendez added some panko breadcrumbs and a touch of flour to dry the fritter batter a bit and bind the ingredients, while her teammates heated oil on the stove.
On the Riverview side of the commercial kitchen, Gentile prepared a carrot cake base for the bread pudding. "The carrot as the secret ingredient really worked out great for the bread pudding," he said.
Gendron plated the tuna tartare and kimchi, then made a carrot pesto sauce and wrote the word "Sharks" on the plate, referring to the Riverview mascot.
The kitchen remained in constant motion as the dishes took shape.
Each team had two weeks to come up with recipes and practice for the competition, said Rolling Pin Marketing Manager Kelly Bock. Initially, four schools were invited to compete.
Durant beat Tampa Bay Tech in the semifinals, and Riverview's team beat South County Career Center to reach the finals.
As each plate was presented to the judges, Rosa and Allers introduced the dishes for their respective teams.
When the tasting was done and the judge's sheets tallied, the two teams were only four points apart.
Rolling Pin owner and Executive Chef Dave West praised both teams' food.
"It's almost restaurant-quality," West said.
Riverview won a set of cookware for the school and several specialty kitchen gadgets.
Each participant received a Wusthof cook's knife, and Rolling Pin donated 5 percent of its sales that day for purchases made in the name of either school.
"We hope next year to get double the amount of schools involved," West said.