The Culinary Arts Kitchen at Bloomingdale High School was buzzing with activity. Students sautéed peppers, cut up pork and rolled burritos. The kitchen, under the direction of Chef Rene Marquis, is always busy leading up to the lunch hour and preparing meals for the teachers, but this day was different. Seniors Gigi Rivera and Tony Alvarez were serving their award-winning Fresh from Florida burrito to Superintendent Jeff Eakins and their parents.
“It feels like an accomplishment, because it’s not every day that you get to serve the superintendent,” Alvarez said.
“We’ve never made mass amounts of burritos like this,” said Chef Rene Marquis, Bloomingdale High School culinary teacher.
Tony and Gigi’s “T&G’s Burrito” won the state-level Fresh From Florida Student Chef Cook Off competition in January in Tallahassee. They’ll now go on to compete next month at the First Annual USDA Food and Nutrition Services Southeast Regional Jr. Chef Competition (SRJCC) in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Each year, this competition just gets better and better. We did the local, and then we did the regionals, we did the state, and now we’re going to the actual (cook-off) against everybody,” Rivera said.
This is Rivera’s second year winning the state competition. This is the first year the SRJCC is being held.
“Last year her tacos won. This year it’s the burrito,” Chef Marquis explained to Superintendent Eakins.
As state winners, their meal will be served in school cafeterias across Florida. They also received a $1,000 Florida 529 Savings Plan and a day in the kitchen with celebrity chef Art Smith.
“We go to Kentucky for Nationals, and there will eight or nine teams there from all over the country,” Alvarez said.
At the SRJCC, there’s even more on the line: scholarships from Sullivan University in Kentucky.
“The winners of this competition get room-and-board, free associates degree up to $55,000,” said Chef Marquis. “They’re not going to lose. We’re going to continue practicing. We actually have the next three weeks training sessions.”
The junior chefs will be judged on taste, appearance, creativity, use of local ingredients, use of USDA foods, School Nutrition Program appropriate, food safety, general nutrition knowledge, execution and teamwork. Rivera believes they’ll be ready.
“Just working hard, practicing, tweaking the recipe, just doing it multiple times, just to make sure it comes out perfect,” Rivera said.
“So when they get there, they’ll be at the point that they can do it without communication. To be honest with you, that’s what any judge watching a competition for culinary would like to see anyways. They don’t want to see chaos. They don’t want to see Gordon Ramsey screaming, ‘It’s terrible!’ or ‘It’s raw!’ They just want fine cuisine that’s been properly cooked,” Chef Marquis said.
Alvarez revealed what’s in the T&G’s Burrito that makes it so special, “Our burrito has pork; 4 different types of pepper: green pepper, red pepper, yellow pepper and orange pepper; and it’s got black beans and pinto beans. It has a nice seasoning with sazon, adobo and curry. The difference, I think, not too many burritos you find that are curry,” Alvarez said.
Superintendent Eakins gave the T&G’s Burrito a thumbs up. Students got to taste-test the burrito as well. Student Nutrition Service staff prepared 400 burritos that were served up in the cafeteria.
“We’ve been cooking this meal and serving it to the teachers, now the students got to eat it,” said Chef Marquis.
Competition organizers said the goal is to inspire students to be involved in the creation of healthier eating habits, stimulate interest in locally produced agriculture in Child Nutrition Programs, and increase consumption of healthier products in school meals.
Chef Marquis believes it’s also creating the next-generation of talented chefs. “I would put these two culinary students against any culinary student in the nation,” Chef Marquis said.
“It feels great, and I’m just so thankful and blessed that there’s many more things to come,” said Rivera.
Hillsborough County Public Schools wishes Alvarez and Rivera good luck at the competition on May 9. Check back for the results.
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