CONCORD -- Would-be professional chefs and kids cooking "just for fun" teamed up with real professional chefs in a school culinary competition, with a focus on making healthy food choices and with prizes on the line.
Youngsters and their chef mentors took over the Concord High School kitchen for the second annual Cooking with Kids contest, preparing a variety of hot and cold dishes.
Students from Walnut Acres Elementary in Walnut Creek, Silverwood Elementary in Concord and Valhalla Elementary in Pleasant Hill offered their dishes in Best Tasting, Best Plate Presentation and Most Nutritious categories at the Oct. 17 event. For the grand prize, nutrition counted most.
Chef Kenny Byrne of Moresi's Chophouse in Clayton mentored the Walnut Acres team, for which Liko Denman earned gold in the Best Tasting category with his carnevale salad.
"I like to cook at home and I saw a demonstration at Trader Joe's and decided to try it," Liko said.
He created a colorful salad with tortellini, grilled chicken breasts, avocado, romaine lettuce, roasted peppers, olive oil, salt and pepper, topped with Parmesan cheese.
Byrne kept a sharp eye on Liko as he diced chicken breasts into edible squares while talking about mac and cheese.
Macaroni and cheese is a favorite among contestants, and with a little assist from chef Habib Jacifi, co-owner of Bravo Bistro, Fiori and P-ZA Pie in Concord, Silverwood Elementary student Lauren Eldridge earned the bronze for Best Plate Presentation with her mac and cheese.
"We really appreciate the busy restaurateurs who take the time out to support the kids," said Tim Watson-Williams, nutrition services supervisor for Mt. Diablo Unified School District.
Cooking with Kids is his brainchild, but Watson-Williams credits Anna Fisher, district food service director, and others with its success.
"We want to get kids engaged in the process, especially cooking from scratch," Watson-Williams said.
Organizers did such a good job engaging kids last year that access to the steamy, crowded kitchen was limited to three school teams this year.
When the cooking was done and the judging complete, fourth-grader Joshua Nieman from Valhalla Elementary took grand prize with his Italian Vegetable Soup.
Joshua was surprised by his win.
"I think about cooking as a hobby," he said, noting that nachos and pasta are currently among his favorites.
His Valhalla team was assisted by Chef Dan Frengs of Slow Hand BBQ in Pleasant Hill.
"There is a little sensory overload (working in a commercial kitchen with the kids), but I enjoy it," Frengs said as he was tutoring students on presentation for Ava Jahangiri's pork butt tacos, the winner of the gold in Best Presentation.
The event is designed to encourage kids to choose and prepare healthy foods for themselves and others while having a good time. Watson-Williams hopes to duplicate the contest for high school students.
Students submit favorite recipes and the chef-mentors show them how to extrapolate the measurements into a meal for 50 to 100 people. In the process, kids learn kitchen hygiene, preparation techniques, timing, planning, teamwork and other life skills.
Walnut Acres Principal Dr. Colleen Dowd said Watson-Williams reaches out to engage kids in other ways, citing his instructional on-site barbecue sessions at the various schools.
New Mt. Diablo School District Superintendent Nellie Meyers, along with teachers, principals and local business representatives, turned out to taste-test the kids' culinary accomplishments while judges made up their minds.
"It's exciting to see students so proud of their creations," Myers said.
Judges included Dana Dodge, child nutrition consultant; Concord High School Principal Dr. Gary McAdam; and Avrilio Moumoutjas, district special education specialist.
Representing state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, Satinder Malhi presented each contestant with a certificate of recognition and expressed his regrets for not being able to attend. DeSaulnier is a former Concord restaurateur.
Reach Dana Guzzetti at email@example.com or call 925-202-9292.