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Cook-off victory wins Santee students a free D.C. trip and a place on LAUSD’s lunch menus

Mike Szymanski | April 8, 2016

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David Shapiro, from LACES, won Best Presentation with his team.

What’s for lunch? How about Sweet Potatoes Chicken Quesadilla, a healthy slaw with cumin-lime crema and a Grilled Pineapple Downtown with graham crackers, cinnamon and apple reduction? And it’s all less than 730 calories and costs $1.14!

Sounds like an impossible gourmet meal, but that’s the recipe that a team from Santee Education Complex cooked up Friday afternoon for a lunch that will make it onto LA Unified’s school menu next year. The team of Tochtli Espinoza, David Martinez and Jennifer Perez will get an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., in June to compete with other student chefs in the Cooking Up Change competition launched by the Healthy Schools Campaign.

“None of us have been to Washington, this is great,” Espinoza said after their win.

“We made something that we liked and is reflective of where we live,” added Martinez, referring to the easy-to-eat quesadillas. “It is easy to make too. Simple and fast.”

Perez, who came up with the catchy Pineapple Downtown dessert, said the team wanted to mix pineapple with peanut butter and make it crunchy. They used SunButter, made with roasted sunflower seeds, to avoid peanut allergies, a serious issue for school cafeterias.

“We think maybe it was the slaw that won it for us,” said Perez. They used low-fat mayonnaise, low-fat yogurt and cumin with lime.

The team wore note cards on their aprons from students in the school who had written reviews of their work, and the judges made note of their unique outfits.

The judges included professional chefs and some LA Unified employees: Chef Omar Briscoe, Lori Corbin, Gail Carney, Lisa Fontanesi and Philip D’Alessandro.

“Can you come to my house?” Carney asked one team of student cooks after sampling their lunch.

Laura Benavidez, LA Unified’s interim co-director of Food Services, said the 20 students in the competition had to follow strict rules, like the district does when creating the 750,000 meals served daily. They had a list of approved ingredients to pick from, couldn’t go beyond their budget and had to stay within the sodium and fat limits that the district uses.

“If we used real beef, we would be above the fat content, so we’re using soy meat,” said 12-year-old David Shapiro while standing at the grill. “The kids don’t really know, but this is 100 percent vegetarian and it’s all under 400 calories.”

Shaprio and team members Amadi Cary, 13, and Aaron Withy, 12, were the youngest competitors Friday. They attend the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, which is one of two LA Unified middle schools with a culinary arts program. They are too young to compete for the trip to Washington, but they won the judges’ Best Presentation award because they explained their dishes well.

“We told our friends we were making sweet potato nachos and they didn’t really like the sound of it, but when they tried it, they liked it,” said Cary.

“It was a cool test on nachos,” Shaprio added. “We took a poll in the school.”

Withy said, “It’s unusual to have cooking in middle school, but the three of us have loved to cook since we were kids. We will all probably stick with it.”

Banning High School won the Best Side Dish award for their Peach Crisp, which included nutmeg and graham crackers. Nestor Flores and Jasmin De La Cuevas created that dessert, along with a savory penne with chicken, spinach and cheese.

The other entrees from Monroe, Narbonne, Polytechnic and West Adams high schools had dishes such as deconstructed chicken lettuce wrap, broccoli cheese sweet potato fries, rotini marinara, blazed vegetables, vanilla apple parfait and a Triple P fruit salad (peach, pear and pineapple with paprika and chili powder).

The competition was held at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College cafeteria near downtown. The school was on spring break.

“We are proud of all the students, and we may have to incorporate some of the other ideas we saw today too, they were all so great,” Benavidez said.

Afterward, after looking over the competition, Shapiro pointed out, “I don’t want to say anything bad, but cafeteria workers aren’t going to cut things in the shape of a heart, like one of these. And some of their portions look small. Our portions were huge and were only 400 calories.”

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