Iron Chef competition has fifth-graders in Avalon thinking culture and cuisine

Mark Kalla, right, head chef at Green Cuisine in Stone Harbor, sat in judgment June 13 of the Iron Chef competition for fifth-graders at Avalon Elementary School, which had been teaching its students about the role of cuisine on culture.

It was a culinary scene "Iron Chef" fans have witnessed before - a group of aspiring chefs are given a mystery basket of ingredients and a certain amount of time to create three dishes using what's inside, to be judged by a panel of professional chefs.

On June 13, the fifth-graders of Avalon Elementary School participated in their own Iron Chef competition, the final project in semester-long interdisciplinary program called Culture and Cuisine.

Avalon's art teacher Jackie Farina and Spanish teacher Debbie Ware paired with Mark Kalla, the head chef at Green Cuisine in Stone Harbor, to facilitate the program. The purpose of the program was to teach students how food plays a pivotal role in culture as well as to teach them cooking basics.

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For the Iron Chef competition, the fifth-graders were broken into four groups of three. As the students stood around a long table waiting for the start buzzer, they looked over the ingredients laid out in table before them - potatoes, peppers, chocolate chips, whipped cream, diced onions, dill weed, lemons and much more.

Then the buzzer went and the baskets were opened revealing the secret ingredient - pint-sized pastry shells.

"Remember, you can make your dish sweet or you can make it savory," Kalla said, offering that last bit of advice before backing off and watching the students work.

Fifth-graders Ashley Ontrup, of Avalon, and her teammate Samantha Braun, of Cape May Count House, quickly ran toward the carrots and potatoes and started peeling and chopping, while classmate Madeline Hughes, of Stone Harbor, started zesting lemons.

"Mr. Kalla, can you saute chicken?" Ashley called out, whispering that she and her teammates were making mini chicken pot pie.

Madeline's team were making personal-size lemon meringue pies.

"Remember that lemon and orange zest are very powerful," Kalla said. "So if you use too much you will overpower a dessert. Just keep that in mind. Nine minutes left, people."

"Oh, jeez," one student said, "Mr. Kalla, we need the oven!"

This was the first year Avalon Elementary School held the Culture and Cuisine program, and it was a great success, Kalla said. He hopes to expand it next year by involving more grade levels.

"It's so invigorating to watch young minds challenge themselves," he said. "They've learned so much in such a short time. They are grabbing tarragon to use in a chicken pot pie, they're carving flowers out of carrots for garnish - that's a big step."

Glancing at the clock, Kalla gave a three-minute warning.

"At this point you should be wrapping things up," he said. "You have 3½ minutes to get your food plated and to that table. Remember, if it doesn't make it on the plate, it doesn't count."

After the buzzer went off and the plates were placed before the judges, the students took turns presenting their dishes to the panel. The chicken pot pies took the win.

"I really must tell you, especially our chicken pot pie group, you guys really nailed a beautiful dish," Kalla said. "These were dishes you can make for your parents."

Samantha, a member of the winning team, said she has learned a lot through the culinary program and is looking forward to spending more time in the kitchen.

"I never even knew how to make a grilled cheese before this," Samantha said. "Now, I'm like a chef."

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