Anne Smith peered into the grocery bag one recent day, befuddled when she spied the ground pork, zucchini, microgreens and bananas. The ingredients had been thrust upon her and her classmates, sending them into a day-long frenzy as they devised a menu for a school-wide cooking contest.
After a day of preparation, a three-course meal materialized: a salad with fresh mozzarella and tomato, a halved zucchini stuffed with turkey accompanied by cilantro jasmine rice, and for dessert, caramelized bananas topped with shortbread crumble.
A three-judge panel would decide if the meal warranted Smith’s class advancing to the final round of the cooking competition unfolding this summer at the private Phillips School in Annandale, Va., a special-education day school for students 6 to 22 years old.
The test of kitchen prowess is loosely modeled after “Chopped,” the high-pressure Food Network contest that pits contestants against one another as they try to devise dishes from a hodgepodge of assigned ingredients.
The summer challenge doubles as an outlet for students to practice social skills they learn at school, said Corinne Bolder, the extended-school-year program supervisor at Phillips.
The school’s umbrella organization, Phillips Programs for Children and Families, operates three schools in the D.C. region for special-needs students who have emotional or behavioral challenges and learning disabilities. Many of the Annandale students get lessons on handling feedback and expressing feelings appropriately.
“This is life skills,” said Bolder, who conceived the idea for the cooking challenge. “Every kid needs to learn to cook and be independent.”
The weeks-long competition will culminate this week when the three classes that have cooked their way to the finale square off for the ultimate prize — an ice cream party. The students will prepare a meat, grain, fruit and vegetable, as they have in previous weeks. But this being the finale, the students will be challenged with an unusual, yet-to-be-revealed ingredient, Bolder said.
Last week, students spent Tuesday brainstorming recipes and, with help from teachers, began preparing their dishes the next morning. Three teams — two classes of high-school-aged students and one elementary school class — unveiled their creation to the judges.
On Wednesday afternoon, the smell of spices wafted through the school kitchen as students scrambled to put the final touches on their meals. They hustled the dishes to judging tables, presenting them 15 minutes apart.
In one classroom, the elementary-school-aged students presented zucchini boats served with breadsticks, rice and banana cupcakes. Erik Lund, a judge and the school’s culinary coordinator, asked, “What was the hardest part?”
For Kristopher Hazel, 9, it was fighting the urge — “the urge to want to eat,” he chirped.
Minutes later, Smith, 16, and her classmate, Iyanna Hatcherson-Ross, awaited the judge’s comments on their meal in a room downstairs. The lights were switched off and artificial candles flickered — presentation, after all, factored into the team’s score, along with creativity, taste and knowledge.
One judge complimented the team’s perfectly cooked rice. Another remarked that the team’s dessert resembled Bananas Foster.
Smith said she enjoys cooking but is more comfortable with breakfast ingredients such as eggs, bacon and grits than the fare she and her classmates were assigned.
Hatcherson-Ross, 18, conceded that she wasn’t much of a cook and that the competition was outside her comfort zone. She doubted, at first, that her team would win.
“It’s all about faith,” she told the judges. “You aren’t going to get [anywhere] thinking about negativity.”
Her attitude proved prescient — Hatcherson-Ross’s team won. She and Smith erupted into cheers after learning they would compete for the title.
But the celebration was short-lived. Dishes awaited.