On Earth Day, the enormous kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena was abuzz with activity as eight teams of fifth-graders, with the help of professional chef mentors, competed in the Junior Cooking Challenge.

Wearing chef’s jackets and toques, 60 students from McKinley Elementary School in Petaluma were chopping, measuring, pouring and stirring as they prepared school lunches from menus they had helped create.

The competition was the culmination of a program sponsored by Clover Sonoma and the nonprofit Conscious Kitchen to help inform and inspire students to understand the impact of fresh, local, organic food on health, climate, agricultural systems, community, and the planet.

In addition, the program emphasized the importance of preparing nutritious food based off the FLOSN method – fresh, local, organic, seasonal, non-GMO within a budget.

The students were challenged to develop, prepare and serve a delicious federally-compliant school lunch that could be served in a school setting for $2.25 or less per serving.

Working with well-known Sonoma County chefs who were volunteering their time, the students prepped, cooked and plated their recipes to a panel of community leaders and judges in front of parents, teachers and residents in Food Network’s Junior Chef style.

As teams worked with their mentor chefs, they received both culinary tips and motivation to win the competition.

“I know it’s very difficult, but, luckily, we’ve got the A team here. We’re going to be able to do it,” Chef Mark Stark told Team Stark & Company members.

“I’m going to show you the first one and then everybody is going to do one, right? Take your time. Make it look pretty because you eat with your eyes first. You think, oh, that’s so pretty I can’t eat it. And then, what do you do?”

“Eat it,” the students responded.

“What don’t I like?” Stark asked the team a short time later.

“Losing!” Team Stark & Company shouted in unison.

Throughout the kitchen all the teams appeared more focused and began working more swiftly as the judging drew nearer.

Anyone coming close to a team as they put the final touches to their dishes was occasionally mistaken as a spy for another team.

As the time came for the judges to taste the food, they sat down next to their score sheets. The judging criteria were based on presentation, taste, nutrition, organic, budget, student presentation and locale of menu items (sourced up to 150 miles).

Former NBC television anchor Diane Dwyer served as master of ceremonies during the judging.

The judges included Adam Busby, CIA, Greystone general manager; Amy Gutierriez, children’s book author and sports journalist; Gibson Thomas, founder and editor at Edible Marin & Wine Country magazine; Steve Garner, KSRO Radio “Good Food Hour;” Marcus Benedetti, Clover Sonoma Chairman and CEO; and Monti Carlo, Food Network personality, chef and former Master Chef contestant.

As judges sampled the lunches, they expressed praise for the taste and eye appeal of the meals and asked questions. The most frequent question to students was “Would you eat this lunch if it were served at your school?”

The answer was always an enthusiastic “yes.”

Team Stark & Company, with the help of Chef Stark, won first place with a main course of Cali Korean BBQ with Mary’s Chicken Rice Bowl, a side of Roasted Greens & Things, a fruit dish of Honeyed Citrus, Clover Yogurt, Pistachio Crunch and Coconut Agua Fresca beverage. The total cost per serving of this school lunch was $2.21.

Led by Spinster Sisters Restaurant chef, Liza Hinman, Team Speedy Meatballs took second place. Their main course of open faced Speedy Meatball Sandwich, with a veggie side of red cabbage and snap pea slaw with cumin mint yogurt dressing. A fruit course of mandarin and strawberry salad, and Meyer lemon strawberry lemonade rounded out the meal. The total cost of this school lunch per serving was $2.22.

The Macarthur Place team with the help Chef Cole Dickinson and Chef Jeremy Clemens took third place. The team earned praise from judges for a “simple but beautiful humus flower dish and presentation.” Their first course was citrus, sesame vinaigrette, Greek yogurt, mint; second course was English pea hummus with sugar snap peas; third course was chicken salad, kale ranch and quinoa. The total cost of this school lunch was $2.09 per serving.

What did students gain from their cooking competition?

“I learned that when you are cooking you need to have perseverance. You must work hard. It might turn out good so you should never give up, even if it seems impossible,” said Tristan Negrete from the Central Market Team.

“This made me want to try foods from other countries and cook more,” said Lydia Louviere from The Swedish Chef Crew team.

“It was fun to cook in a place so big. I already cook at home, but this was exciting. I’m going to cook more now,” said Audrey Johnson from the Oliver’s Market team.

“I thought it was outstandingly cool to work with outstanding people where I want to go to school,” said Lorelai Ladd from the Central Market Team.

Prior to the competition, the students were exposed to lesson plans created by Conscious Kitchen that could be integrated into the classroom curriculum. They took educational field trips that included a visit to a family farm, a farmers market and a green grocery store tour to Oliver’s Market to gain a better understanding of labels and organic products.

Also, each student team visited their chef’s restaurant to finalize their meal for the competition and learn kitchen skills first hand.

Following are recipes from Team Stark & Co. All recipes serve 12

Cali Korean BBQ Mary’s Chicken Rice Bowl with Roasted Greens & Things

2 lbs. Mary’s Organic boneless, skinless chicken thighs,

1/2 cup tamari sauce

2 cups local water

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 inch ginger sliced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 bunch green onions, rough chopped

1/2 cup canola oil

4 tbsp Gochujang paste

Place the soy, water, sugar, garlic, ginger, onions in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the Korean chili paste and canola oil. Let cool.

Place the chicken thighs in a container and cover with the marinade. Let marinate for 1–2 hours.

To cook, remove from the brine and place the chicken on a sheetpan. Place in a preheated oven at 450 degrees and cook for 15 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. When cool cut into large dice. Store until needed.

Cauliflower Rice:

3 cups Lundberg rice

1 cup grated cauliflower

1 quart local water

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

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1 teaspoon salt

Rinse the rice until the water runs clear. Place the rice and cauliflower in the rice cooker and steam. When done, season with the vinegar and the salt.

Roasted Vegetables:

3 bunch broccolini cut in 2-inch pieces

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut in 2-inch pieces.

1 pound Crimini mushrooms sliced 1/4 inch thick.

1/2 pound sugar snap peas.

3 bunch kale torn into 2-inch pieces.

1/2 cup coconut oil

2 Tbsp. Chef Josephs Basil Curry Spice


Toss all the ingredients with enough coconut oil to coat then season with the spice and salt. Place all on separate sheet pans and roast in a 400-degree oven until just cooked through.

6 minute sesame egg:

Organic eggs

Toasted black and white sesame seeds.

Place the eggs in simmering water and cook for 6 minutes. Remove and cool in ice water. Peel and cut in half. Sprinkle with sesame seeds

Soy butter:

1/2 cup tamari sauce

2 pounds of unsalted butter, large diced

Bring the soy sauce to a quick boil, then whisk in butter a few pieces at a time until a sauce is achieved. Keep warm.

To serve:

Place a one cup scoop of rice into a bowl. Arrange the rewarmed chicken, the warm vegetables over the rice. Place the egg in the middle. drizzle with soy butter, and serve.

Honeyed Citrus, Clover Yogurt, Pistachio Crunch

3 pounds of assorted citrus, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick wheels.

2 cups Clover organic vanilla yogurt

4 Tbsp. Gipson orange blossom honey

Pistachio Streusel:

1/2 cup flour

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup oats

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 cup chopped California pistachios

1/4 cup Clover unsalted, butter room temperature

In a bowl mix all the dry ingredients together then mix in the butter until a crumb forms.

Spread on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 325 degrees. Cool.

To serve:

Spoon a tablespoon of yogurt on a dish, arrange the citrus over the yogurt, drizzle with honey and top with some of the streusel.

Coconut Agua Fresca

1 quart organic coconut water

2 quart water

1/2 cup agave syrup

6 California organic dates

1 can organic coconut milk

Juice from 2 limes


Place all the ingredients, except the ice, in a blender and puree. Pour into a pitcher of ice. Serve.

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