Jose Landaverde was inspired to cook by memories of making pupusas with his late father, who was killed in El Salvador. Jorge Perez's interest in food was cultivated by his grandfather, a caterer who introduced him to exotic spices on a trip to Thailand. And Lucile Flores was practically raised in kitchens, especially at the Jack in the Box restaurant where both of her parents work.
Drawn to food by powerful family ties, the Los Angeles Unified student chefs took their culinary interest a grand step further Thursday as they vied to win the local round of a national high school healthful cooking competition. The school district entered the Cooking up Change contest for the first time this year as part of a broader move to give students a larger voice in its healthful school food initiative.
L.A. Unified dramatically altered its menu a few years ago, throwing out chicken nuggets and nachos, for instance, in favor of more whole grains, fresh produce and less sodium and fat. But students rejected many of the new dishes, prompting school officials to more actively involve them through surveys, taste tests, work with culinary teams and, now, a cooking contest.
"What we're trying to do is get kids to eat more healthfully and nutritionally but also have them learn how it impacts their health," said David Binkle, the district's food services director. "It all starts with kids helping us do that."
Under the glare of TV cameras, three-person teams from six of the district's 31 culinary arts programs at Banning, Doyle, Marshall, Polytechnic, Santee and West Adams high schools whipped up an array of student-created dishes within the contest's strict rules: One main dish and two sides with a combined calorie count between 750 and 850. Restricted fat and sodium. Specified amounts of vegetables, grains and meat. No more than 10 ingredients and six preparation steps.
The students created such concoctions as crumbled tamales, barbecue chicken pizza, three different wraps and corn bread topped with black beans, seasoned turkey and lettuce. There were yogurt parfaits with fruit, roasted vegetables on wilted spinach. Oregano, garlic powder and chili pepper substituted for salt.
At the West Adams prep table, 17-year-old Landaverde had a slight panic attack when Dash seasoning made his vinaigrette tasteless. He set off and came back with a bottle of Italian seasoning, took off the cap and sniffed. "Yes, yes, yes!" he said, breaking out in a smile.
Over at the Banning table, Bryan Orozco, 16, calmly sliced red onions and green peppers for his fajita chicken wrap. An aspiring restaurant owner, Orozco said a love of cooking runs in his family — his mother is a pastry chef, and his uncle the executive chef at a Las Vegas hotel.
At the competition at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, a judging panel that included four professional chefs sampled the food, asked questions and offered feedback and praise. Why a double starch in the tamales? How about more varied color in the largely orange salad?
Then the winner was announced: Landaverde and his teammates, Esther Segura and Maribel Sandoval, had won for their "Tex-Mex Corn Bread and Black Bean Mountain," pears simmered with raisins and cinnamon and cucumber rounds topped with diced tomatoes and a vinaigrette.
The three students burst into tears, whoops of joy and exclamations of "Oh my God!"
"We put so much effort in this, and it's something I'll always remember about high school," Segura said.
Manfred Lassahn, senior executive chef for the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel, said the West Adams team impressed him with their passion. "They nailed everything from presentation to flavor profile to originality," he said.
The three students won an array of prizes — including a $500 gift certificate to L.A. Trade Tech's culinary arts program — and will advance to the national competition in Washington, D.C., in June, with a chance to meet First Lady Michelle Obama and cook for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Next year their recipes will be added to the district's school lunch menu.
That's when the dishes will face their biggest panel of judges: the students. On a recent visit to West Adams, the scattered remains of lunch indicated their preferences: There were empty cans of Shasta tiki punch and bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Whole wheat pizza was left untouched.
Landaverde is confident his team's Tex-Mex dish will win over his peers. "It's a great dish that will inspire them to eat better," he said.