Outfitted in tall white chef hats and green aprons, the Food Fighters faced off against the Blazing Hot Chili Peppers in a cooking showdown Monday at Killybrooke Elementary in Costa Mesa.
Sixteen students in grades 4 to 8 participated in the Killybrooke Iron Chef competition, a pilot event sponsored by the school, the Network for a Healthy California and the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's Food Services Department.
Students had 45 minutes to create a tasty, healthy dish using a secret ingredient: vegetables.
The competition started as participants rushed to the front of the stage to gather vegetables and other basic ingredients. The kids heaped onions, peppers, tomatoes, zucchinis, avocados, scallions and cilantro onto plates before rushing back to work stations to peel, chop, dice, sauté and bake.
Soon, the smell of quesadillas and pizza filled the air.
Two large-screen TVs captured the action going on behind the tables and projected them to the students, who sat mesmerized and tantalized by the quick action and savory smells.
The Food Fighters took first place in the competition with a healthy whole-wheat veggie and cheese quesadilla. Alongside the quesadilla, they served a side of homemade spicy guacamole in a hollowed bell pepper.
The Blazing Hot Chili Peppers baked a whole-wheat pizza served alongside a fresh garden salad. Points were awarded based on food appearance, taste and creativity by three Killybrooke staff judges. The competition was close, with a one-point difference determining the winner.
"I encourage you not only to eat healthy, but to help in the kitchen," Principal Kathy Sanchez announced to the student audience as the showdown came to a close. "It's a great way to spend time with your family."
Food Fighter team member and fourth-grader Ruby Ceballos, 9, has already been putting Sanchez's advice to task.
Ruby's father, Jose Ceballos, was in the audience, a digital camera in hand. He rattled off a list of foods Ruby made at home in the last month: scrambled eggs, pancakes, carne asada tacos and biscuits.
"We cook a lot at home," he said.
Ruby was still optimistic after her team's loss. Her chef hat was in her hands, along with tomatoes, carrots and zucchini.
"We did a good job, the other team did a good job, and we all had fun," said Ruby, who has aspirations of becoming a chef.
"This is one way they get actual hands-on experience with vegetables," said Pam Williams, nutritionist for the Network for a Healthy California. "Once a person has participated in selecting ingredients, making and tasting something they've created and are of proud of, it stays in their mind forever.'
"These students will remember this competition when they are adults,"
Sanchez said, adding that working with the Network has been a success. As a result, she said students are making healthier food choices in the cafeteria on a daily bases.