Martin Luther King Jr. Early College wins EatWell@School culinary competition

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LiveWell Colorado sponsored a nine-week after-school culinary program with three Denver high schools that culminated in the winning team from Martin Luther King Jr. Early College taking home first place at the competition last Friday. The all-female team took the prize with its own healthy school-lunch meal: Parmesan- and herb-crusted chicken with creamy pesto spaghetti and a stuffed tomato.

The teams from Manual and Bruce Randolph high schools tied for second place in this contest that called for preparing, plating and serving a nutritious school lunch that fulfills United States Department of Agriculture guidelines as well as Denver Public Schools' specific cost and sourcing criteria: at least one ingredient locally produced, and the meals cost under ninety cents each to make.

The EatWell@School initiative is sponsored by LiveWell Colorado, a non-profit organization committed to preventing and reducing obesity through promoting healthy eating and active living, in conjunction with Johnson and Wales University. Volunteer chef/mentors (senior-level culinary students from the university) taught each group of students food safety, knife skills, managing a cooking budget and healthy food sourcing, all leading up to each team developing its own nutritious school lunch. Each student team prepared its dishes for the judges to sample and rate based on originality, taste and appearance; students were also graded on their professionalism and ability to efficiently clean their tools and work stations. "By teaching students firsthand how to prepare fresh, whole ingredients into a healthy meal," pronounced Maren C. Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado, "we're giving them the knowledge and skills needed to eat healthy for a lifetime."

Judges Anne Warhover, Colorado Health Foundation; chef Daniel Asher, Root Down; Sandy Grady, Denver Public Schools Food & Nutrition Services; and chef Jorge de la Torre from Johnson and Wales spoke to each team, asking about the preparation, ingredients and presentation, then tasted each dish.

First up was the team from Bruce Randolph, which prepared cauliflower fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, liberally interspersed with broccoli and cauliflower florets, fresh spinach, carrots, diced zucchini and red bell pepper strips, topped off with a boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced and fanned over the pasta.

When Asher asked the Bruce Randolph team, "Did you like cauliflower before this?," the students responded with good-natured giggles and nodded their heads affirmatively.

The team from Manual presented the judges with shepherd's pie, sparking a question from the audience about the dish's origin, and chefs Asher and de la Torre gave a brief history before digging into the individual portions of lean ground beef, diced vegetables and tomatoes in a low-sodium beef broth and smothered with Yukon gold mashed potatoes with white Cheddar cheese and cauliflower blended in. Warhover took a bite and exclaimed, "That is a darn good shepherd's pie!" The spectators hadn't yet gotten to sample the contest dishes, but an apparent surplus of shepherd's pie in the back kitchen was brought out for the crowd to enjoy, and it was delicious -- hot, savory and filling. Then Martin Luther King Jr. Early College's team brought out its parmesan- and herb-crusted chicken with creamy pesto spaghetti and stuffed tomato. The dish was visually appealing, with bright yellow-green herbed chicken nestled atop a mound of spinach and basil-flecked whole grain pasta, and served with a bright, fleshy broiled tomato stuffed with diced Granny Smith apples and red and green bell peppers in a tomato-cornmeal suspension.

The judges deliberated for about fifteen minutes, scratching away at their judging sheets, and the subsequent award ceremony was brief, with the winners each taking home their own new sauté pan -- and all of the students leaving with culinary goody bags from LiveWell Colorado filled with kitchen tools.

The winning meal will be the featured dish served at LiveWell Colorado's inaugural fundraiser on Wednesday, December 8, and will then go through the Denver Public Schools' meal assessment process for inclusion as a regular school lunch option.

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