By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
FRANKFORT, Ky. – Regional champion high school teams from all across Kentucky will gather Aug. 15-23 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville to decide a state championship.
The site isn't Freedom Hall; it's next door in the lobby of South Wing A. The teams won't be using balls and nets, but pots and pans. You won't see any 3-pointers and lay-ups, but there'll be plenty of chopping and dicing.
The first Kentucky Farm to School Junior Chef Cook Off will take place during this year's Kentucky State Fair on the Gourmet Garden stage, where the fair's annual Cast Iron Chef Competition is held.
"The Junior Chef competition has received a very enthusiastic response in its first year," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said. "It has enabled young people throughout Kentucky to learn basic cooking skills and understand the importance of buying local. Perhaps best of all, Sullivan University, our key partner in this endeavor, has very generously offered to provide scholarships to members of the top teams. I encourage everyone to watch these teams in action at the state fair."
"It's new and exciting," said Junior Chef Cook Off organizer Tina Garland, coordinator of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Farm to School Program. "We're already planning for next year.
"This is more than just a competition; the students are learning skills such as recipe development, food handling, and food safety," Garland said. "The competition provides the opportunity for the youth of Kentucky to make healthy choices and increase consumption of local fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets."
The students also have an opportunity to win $70,000 worth of scholarships to Sullivan University, whose Louisville campus boasts a nationally-known culinary program.
Sullivan will award $6,000 scholarships to each member of the winning team, which can contain between three and six students. John Wiley & Sons publishing company will give $600 to the winning team and provide books to any student on the winning team who enters a college culinary program where John Wiley books are sold.
Garland said the winning team will also receive a special secret prize, which will be revealed when Agriculture Commissioner James Comer presents awards to the top four teams after the final cook off on Aug. 23.
Members of the runner-up team each will get $4,000 scholarships, and members of the other two semifinal teams each will receive $2,000 scholarships.
Three Sullivan chefs/instructors will judge each of the cook offs. The final cook off will have five judges, including Kentucky native Dr. Janie Thornton, the U.S. deputy undersecretary of agriculture, and Kirk Farquharson, senior program specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.
Garland has been amazed by the amount of community involvement the cook-off has generated in its inaugural year.
"We've gotten a great reception from the communities and the food service world," she said. "A lot of teams have reached out for sponsors, and their communities are truly getting behind them and providing support."
The cook off will get under way with a doubleheader at 9 a.m. on the opening day of the fair – Thursday, Aug. 15 – when Montgomery County takes on Bardstown Thomas Nelson, followed at 11 by Hebron Conner vs. Mayfield.
The competition continues Friday, Aug. 16, with Boyle County facing Oldham County at 9 a.m., followed by a quarterfinal showdown at 11 between the Montgomery County-Thomas Nelson winner and the Conner-Mayfield survivor.
The rest of the schedule includes:
- Sunday, Aug. 18: Barren County vs. Breathitt County, 9 a.m.; Boyle County-Oldham County winner vs. Barren County-Breathitt County winner, 11 a.m.
- Monday, Aug. 19: Madison Southern vs. Louisville Portland Christian, 9 a.m.; Fort Campbell vs. Whitley County, 11 a.m.
- Tuesday, Aug. 20: Madison Southern-Portland Christian winner vs. Fort Campbell-Whitley County winner, 9 a.m.; Louisville Fern Creek vs. Pikeville, 11 a.m.
- Wednesday, Aug. 21: Menifee County vs. the Fern Creek-Pikeville winner, 11 a.m.
- Thursday, Aug. 22: semifinals at 9 and 11 a.m.
- Friday, Aug. 23: final, 10 a.m.
Junior Chef teams from across Kentucky took part in regional competitions this past spring. Students' dishes were judged based on taste, appearance, creativity, best and most use of local ingredients, and ease and affordability of preparation by school food service staff. Many of the award-winning recipes will be on the lunch menus of the winners' schools this fall.
The Junior Chef competition is part of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Farm to School Program. Junior Chef encourages high school students to learn how to cook by using local ingredients to prepare healthy meals while at the same time teaching students about agriculture, marketing, organization, teamwork, and community involvement.
The Department's Farm to School Program connects local farmers to school districts to make fresh Kentucky Proud foods available to Kentucky children. Participating Kentucky school districts spent an estimated $468,000 on local foods during the 2012-2013 school year. A total of 84 school districts are members of the Kentucky Proud program, which helps Kentucky farmers market their products to their local communities.
Click here for a bracket of the state Junior Chef Cook Off.