It was a windy evening at Woods Furniture Gallery as Turlock’s two high schools faced off during the Turlock Education Foundation’s fourth annual Iron Chef Competition, but the gusts couldn’t blow away the sweet taste of victory for Turlock High School when they were crowned champions of the culinary showdown for the first time since 2014.
The Iron Chef Competition is not only a culinary showdown between Turlock and Pitman high schools, but also one of the year’s largest fundraisers which supports various programs throughout the school district, including musical education, field trips and classroom grants.
“It’s not all about who wins or loses,” said Turlock Culinary Arts instructor Bobby Sheets. “The kids get to come out and participate, and try to compete for a good cause.”
This year’s competition centered around a barbecue theme, and each team, comprised of four students and the site principal, had one hour to prepare an appetizer, main course and dessert delectable enough to win over the judges: Stanislaus State Recreation Director Dan Houlden (a certified barbecue judge), TUSD Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan, Woods Furniture Gallery owner Randy Woods, Turlock Direct owner Jamie Cimoli and Mayor Gary Soiseth.
“We get to taste a lot of different food all the time, so we want to see if they’ve been creative with their meal and if they’ve used a lot of teamwork,” said Soiseth, who judged the competition for the third time. “We have a really healthy rivalry between the two schools, and I think it’s great to come out here and support both of them in a friendly, competitive way.”
Pitman’s team of Alex Valadez, Fernando Nunez, Juan Hernandez and Valerie Duarte – all seniors – created a full-course meal inspired by the “farm-to-table” trend, along with their principal Amy Curd.
“We wanted to represent our agricultural area,” said Pitman Culinary Arts instructor Nena Stewart. “We live in the heartland of agriculture in the United States, so we focused on our roots and where the food comes from.”
Using ingredients from local growers like Smile Farms, the Pitman team created a menu featuring an appetizer of grilled watermelon salsa and homemade tortilla chips, caprese skewers with a blackberry balsamic glaze and homemade mozzarella, grilled avocado with parmesan and homemade rustic sourdough bread. Dinner was a strawberry kale salad, homemade ricotta ravioli, sourdough bread and the main entrée, which saw changes as the night progressed.
What was originally supposed to be a surf and turf meal was more surf than turf, as the Pitman team realized much too late that they had forgotten to bring along the rib eye steaks they had meant to serve and instead only had salmon to prepare.
“We freaked out, but we improvised,” said Hernandez.
The Pitman team relied on the fresh ingredients they had on hand to make the salmon as enticing as possible, then followed up the entrée with a dessert of mini strawberry rhubarb crisps, s’mores cookie cups, grilled pineapple and “rightsideup” cupcakes.
While Pitman had the experience of an all-senior team, their critical mistake of forgetting the steak proved fatal, especially going up against Turlock’s winning theme of “Down Home BBQ.”
The Turlock team, comprised of all juniors, included Sierra Pangilinan, Brianna Contreras, Wendy Martinez, Da’Maia Blue-Estolas and principal Marie Russell.
“There was a lot of practicing after school, and making our meals over and over again to get it right,” said Pangilinan. “This is my first time competing, and it’s definitely an interesting and new experience.”
Turlock’s winning cuisine included a spinach salad with strawberry and poppy seed dressing, chicken and ribs with a creamy potato salad, corn on the cob, brown sugar beans and a dessert of mini key lime pies.
The only problem that the Turlock team faced during the competition, said Sheets, was that one of their homemade barbecue sauces tasted “a little off.”
The flavor must have been spot on in the judge’s opinion, sending Turlock home with the first-place prize. In addition to bragging rights and the Iron Chef Competition trophy, each student on the Turlock team receives a $250 scholarship. TEF gives both culinary programs $250 for participating in the event, and each student on the Pitman team will receive a $150 scholarship.
At the end of the competition, it’s not about who takes home the top prize, said Sheets, but about what the students learn along the way.
“The main goal of Culinary Arts is to teach them work ethic and responsibility they’ll need in the real world,” he said. “We want them to go out there one day and be able to say, ‘I know how to work hard.’”