A Culinary Adventure for the Ages

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June 13, 2024

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Andover Public Schools Iron Chef Students
Andover Middle School Iron Chef Competition Group Photo

The world of food is ever changing and shifting. Convenience products are often a staple and the cooking basics, once handed down from parents and grandparents to the next generation, seem to be just another cookbook on the shelf. Scratch, home cooked meals, have gone from the nightly norm, too, in some cases, non-existent. Yet after witnessing the culinary iron chef competition held at Andover Public Schools this past week, my hopes for the future soared. This iron chef competition was not only a fun idea to expose middle school students to the joys of cooking, and it also proved to be so much more.

dairy ingredients

With six teams of three students each, the contestants were given a mystery basket containing chickpeas, kale, maple syrup, with an extra 5-point bonus item of sweetened condensed milk. They had 20 minutes to brainstorm how to work all these ingredients into a dish along with a large assortment of other pantry items up for grabs, shown in the photos above. Five local chefs offered generous measure of culinary guidance, a dash of kitchen expertise, a sprinkle of trouble shooting, stirred in with a heaping dose of positive encouragement to support the student teams as they prepared their creations to fruition…it was eruptive to say the least.

chef and junior chef
chef and junior chefs

Immediately after the brainstorming phase the student teams jumped right into their one-hour cooking window. As to be expected, it was a race for some and a bit of further deliberation for others, but as the time counted down, all contestants jumped to it.  With the chefs circulating and helping where needed, it was incredible to see the components of each dish begin to come together and morph. When the clock struck the 45-minute mark the term “oh my gosh” chorused throughout the kitchen with every student realizing they were in the home stretch and needed to finish up FAST! The chaos was like a unique dance and although it was a last second finish for some, every group finished with their dishes and were able to plate with the allotted final 10 minutes.

chef and junior chef
Iron chef program creator and emcee
chef and junior chef


When all was done and everyone stepped back to see the finished products, the level of pride on each contestant’s face was heartwarming. As many of these students had little or no experience in a kitchen, it left all five chefs and every person in the audience impressed to see such well thought out and creative dishes. 

It wouldn’t be an iron chef competition without a panel of judges to crown the winners, however it was clear that ALL teams achieved great success. Watching each group present their dishes to the panel of judges was yet another achievement, as public speaking can be nerve racking for anyone. As each dish was explained and presented, you could see each student breathe a deep sigh of relief at the fact that they had run the culinary gauntlet and came out on the other side. The new flavors they experienced, the new ingredients they tried and the newly acquired skills that will continue to grow, were a staggering realization for all of them. The judges definitely had their work cut out for them as every dish was a winner.

plated dish

Yes, there were winners and yes there were…not winners, however the awards were far from the focus in the aftermath of this competition. The way that each of the student teams rose to the challenge to create, react, problem solve, collaborate, and build their masterpieces from whole foods and basic ingredients into a culinary delight was incredible. Each student walked out of that kitchen with their head held high. They were proud of their creations. They were beaming! 

I can promise you that not only is this an experience none of them will ever forget, but it’s a door to the world of food that I know they will also never be able to walk away from. 

Kudos to Andover School Nutrition Services for creating and hosting this iron chef competition and for inspiring these students in their love of food and cooking.  Special shout out to Taylor Pirog, MS, RD, Assistant Food Service Director who planned, organized and implemented the event with the help and support of Director Gail Koutroubas, the school nutrition team and the administration at Andover Public Schools. Many thanks to all the chefs, including JSI Chef Patty and Chef John, and all the students who participated as well as the friends and families who cheered them on!

Article artfully written by Chef John from The John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition.