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Culinary showdown Turlock: Pitman wins high school Iron Chef competition
For the second year straight Pitman High students win the annual Iron Chef competition against Turlock High. Pictured left to right: Culinary instructor Nena Stewart, Paola Rivera, Principal Amy Curd, Jose Cordova, Jared Padilla and Mellissa Farrish. - photo by CANDY PADILLA / The Journal

For the past several weeks the students in the culinary programs at Turlock and Pitman high schools have thrown themselves into learning everything they could about Indian cuisine. They’ve watched videos, read cookbooks, and learned all about the spices that flavor the traditional meals.

“I’ve probably cooked this menu about eight or nine times already,” said Pitman student Jose Cordova.

In the end the practice paid off for Pitman as they successfully defended their Iron Chef championship title.

“I really appreciate the dedication and commitment the students have shown over the last few weeks,” said Pitman Culinary Arts instructor Nena Stewart. “These kids deserved this win.”

The Iron Chef competition is a culinary showdown between the two high schools and a fundraising event for the Turlock Education Foundation, which supports various programs through the district, including musical education, field trips, and classroom grants.

This year’s showdown had the two teams creating and dishing up an authentic Indian meal. Chef Mohini Singh of Mohini Indian Fusions volunteered to help students in the programs learn the finer points of Indian cooking and some of the flavor components before they got to the showdown. Four students from each school’s program were selected two weeks ago to compete alongside the high school principals from each school. The culinary instructors provided some guidance, but all the cooking was up to the teams.

“The biggest challenge was learning the new flavor profile,” said Stewart.

With the timer counting down from one hour, the teams had to present the judges with an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert.

The judges — Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth, Turlock Unified Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan, CSU Stanislaus Dean of Students Ron Noble, and On Broadway with Two Guys co-owner Ed Samo — said they were all impressed with the culinary skills the students highlighted and the food they served, but in the end it was the flavor and presentation of the trio of dishes that Pitman served that put them over Turlock.

“Both schools did great and it’s evident the instructors put a lot of effort into their students,” Samo said. “It’s a great thing to see such an interest from the students in the culinary industry.”

Pitman’s menu featured an appetizer of saag paneer, which is a spinach and cheese dish that was served with homemade naan. It was followed by an entrée of chicken tikka masala, which is served with a spicy, cream sauce along with basmati rice. They finished it off with a dessert of balshuhi, which is similar looking to a donut. It was served with cardamom syrup and saffron and cardamom kulfi, a dish similar to ice cream.

“We really wanted to make the flavors intense in the meal, so we tried a lot of different methods in preparing everything,” said Pitman student Mellissa Farrish.

Pitman’s team was made up of students Jose Cordova, Paola Rivera, Mellissa Farrish, Jared Padilla, Principal Amy Curd and instructor Nena Stewart.

Turlock’s menu began with an appetizer of aloo pakoras, which is a potato fritter that is served with yogurt dipping sauce and a mango lassi, which is similar to a smoothie. Dinner was butter chicken with basmati rice and naan, and the dessert was coconut kheer, which is a rice pudding.

“It is a really interesting cuisine,” said Turlock High student Damaris Lopez. “I’m Hispanic and I noticed there are a lot of similarities between the two cuisines. Making the naan is like making tortillas, only thicker. I really enjoyed learning about all the spices and getting to use them in different ways. It’s an honor to be here in the competition and I’m proud of what we made.”

Turlock’s team was made up of students Karina Gomez, Damaris Lopez, Diandra Castaneda, Anthony Azamey, Principal Marie Russell, and instructor Robert Sheets.

It’s not just claiming the title as the Iron Chef that is up for the taking in the competition. The Turlock Education Foundation gives each school’s culinary program a $250 donation. Each student member from the runner up team receives a $150 scholarship and each student on the winning team gets a $300 scholarship.