SAN FRANCISCO -- It was St. Patrick's Day, but there was no fatty, salty corned beef in sight as four teams of student chefs from San Francisco and Concord squared off during an Iron Chef-style healthy cooking challenge Monday.

Rather than compete school against school, students from Mt. Diablo High in Concord and Galileo High in San Francisco collaborated on each team. They had one hour to create nutritious meals using ingredients handed to them at the start of the Bay Bridge Teens Cook with Heart Challenge in front of the picturesque Ferry Building.

One team got a bag with salmon and pasta, while another received pork loin and polenta. Teens in another group worked with tofu and rice, while those on the final team unpacked chicken and sweet potatoes from their bag of ingredients. All received a variety of fruits and vegetables to complement their entrees.

Students from Gallileo High School participate in the Bay Bridge Teens Cook with Heart Challenge at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, March 17, 2014.
Students from Gallileo High School participate in the Bay Bridge Teens Cook with Heart Challenge at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, March 17, 2014. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

Each group worked with a professional chef to come up with dishes that were judged according to taste, creativity, presentation and teamwork. Then a flurry of chopping, marinating, basting, cooking and grilling ensued.

Maria Heascan, 18, from Galileo High, was paired up with Crystal Barajas, 17, and Juan Gutierrez, 16, from Mt. Diablo High, on the vegetarian dish, which included sauteed onions, garlic and curry and was voted most creative.

Meanwhile, Hector Medina, 16, of Mt. Diablo High, grilled chicken while his teammates boiled sweet potatoes. The chicken dish won an award for best taste.

Medina said it's important for teens to learn about nutrition and healthy cooking to help fight obesity.

"If we learn to cook protein and fats, carbohydrates and vegetables," he said, "it comes with all the minerals and vitamins we need."

In the end, all four teams received an award in one of the categories.

"None of them had a recipe," said Shane Valentine, who coordinates the American Heart Association's Cook with Heart programs for teens and younger kids. "They were showcasing their skills. We're giving them the tools, confidence and knowledge to cook meals from scratch with fresh ingredients. It doesn't have to be fancy. It just has to be real."

Students from Mt. Diablo High's sustainable hospitality and tourism program regularly cook healthy foods in their class taught by local chef Cindy Gershen, who owns the Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek. Gershen helped found the Wellness City Challenge, which presented the healthy cook-off with the American Heart Association.

Students in Galileo High's health academy recently completed the eight-week Teens Cooking with Heart program.

Dr. Robert Lustig, a UC San Francisco child obesity expert and a judge for the event, said he'd like to see healthy cooking programs in every high school. Valentine hopes to expand the program to 2,700 students in the next two years. At Galileo, he said, a survey of parents of students in the class found that 90 percent changed their food at home.

"A big part of parents not wanting to buy different foods is they're afraid no one will eat it," he said. "So, this is really life-changing stuff."

MORE INFORMATION
Details about the Wellness City Challenge are available at www.wellnesscitychallenge.org.
Information about the Cook with Heart program is available by emailing KidsCookWithHeart@heart.org.
To see video clips from the Bay Bridge Teen Cooking Challenge, go to www.contracostatimes.com/education.