The Sherman High School cafeteria looked more like a taping of the TV series Iron Chef or Chopped Thursday, as more than a dozen students competed in the third annual Bearcat Cuisine Cookoff before rolling cameras and a crowd of cheering classmates.
Eighteen students, all enrolled in the high school’s culinary education program, took part in this year’s competition, dawning black chef’s coats and white hats. They divided up into five teams and put their cooking and time management skills to the test with the ultimate goal of creating a winning, Asian-inspired dish, complete with mystery ingredients — all in 30 minutes or less. The teams broke out their cutlery and fired up their stoves, making dishes such as veggie ramen, lemon stir-fry chicken, and sweet and sour Asian stir fry.
Competition judge and Sherman Independent School District Superintendent David Hicks said the kitchen-savvy students were eager to take part in the cook-off and show off the skills they amassed after a semester of culinary courses.
“These kids are excited about being in the competition,” Hicks said. “They work hard all semester for this, and this is the culminating activity at the end of all that work. It’s very interesting to our kids, and they want to be a part of it.”
Hicks joined five other judges, among them Assistant Superintendent Tyson Bennett, Sherman High School Principal Chris Mogan, other school staff and even a student. The panel rated the dishes on five specific criteria: presentation; portion size; creativity and practicality; flavor and texture; and lastly, the use of mystery ingredients.
As stipulated by the competition rules, teams were required to use two of three mystery ingredients, which included sunflower seeds, radishes, and fresh wasabi — a spicy paste popular in Asian cuisine.
Cassie Davidson, cook-off host and SISD chef and representative of district food service contractor Aramark, said she threw the students some culinary curveballs during practices held in the weeks leading up to the competition.
“Whenever we were practicing, I threw them some crazy ingredients and made them run with it,” Davidson said. “I wanted them to think outside the box.”
With the clock counting down, Davidson walked from team to team, offering advice and helpful cooking tips. Not wanting to sugarcoat the competition, she said the cook-off is undoubtedly stressful, but hoped the occasional pointers she doled out to teams was enough to keep them cool when they felt the heat.
“It’s very high stress,” Davidson said. “So, I just wanted them to be able to relax and know that just because everybody is watching them, they’re still able to get this done and they’re still able to do their best.”
Davidson said the skills utilized in Thursday’s competition will not only help students perform well under pressure in the kitchen, but in their future academic pursuits as well.
“The purpose of the competition is really just to have give the kids get some exposure to high-stress situations, but at the same time, still have them look forward to potentially moving on to college, whether it be a culinary school or some other type of educational focus,” Davidson said.
With the timer counting down the final seconds, students scrambled to make sure their plates were prefectly presented. With garnishes of sesame seeds and freshly-chopped cilantro, the plates were taken to the judge’s table where they were thoughtfully tasted and constructively critiqued. In a particularly narrow race decided by differences of only one to two points, a winner was named: the sweet and sour Asian stir fry.
Cookoff team Cooking Combo created this year’s winning dish and its members, junior Monique Davis and seniors Jada Zabalie, John Marlow and Maya John, were thrilled at their success. Davis said their win was a hard fought victory considering the great dishes of their competitors turned out, but her team’s effort and confidence helped set them up for a strong finish.
“I feel like we put in a lot of hard work and we had confidence,” Davis said of her team’s win. “I’m just really excited for all of us.”
The members of Cooking Combo will go on to compete against the winners of other Aramark-serviced schools in the state at a spring cook-off in Waco next year. The team’s winning dish is also set to be served in Sherman High School’s cafeteria in the near future, but after an intense competition and the prospect of making hundreds more plates than they did for the cook-off, Davis posed one question to her tired but elated teammates.
“Who’s gonna make it?”