Prosser Career Academy students served the winning dish at this year’s Cooking Up Change competition, where aspiring high school chefs from across Chicago faced off Thursday to whip up healthful, low-budget school lunches.
In its 11th year, the contest pits Chicago Public Schools students against each other for a chance to see their meal — which must cost less than $1.40 per plate, and pack between 550 and 650 calories — end up on their school lunch menu.
The six top student-chefs from the Northwest Side school netted first place overall, in addition to winning the prize for best presentation.
Jose Berber, Itzel Bucio, Jasalyne Garcia, Naomi Perez, Jerimah Tate and Yesenia Velazquez crafted a chicken-and-rice entree with a side of toasted corn and carrot relish, alongside pear crisp for dessert.
The dish will be added to the CPS school lunch menu starting in February, but the students aren’t done competing — they’ll fly to Washington, D.C. this summer for a national contest.
Velazquez, a senior who competed for the first time this year, said she was thrilled to be a part of the winning team.
“For me it was a big accomplishment because before, we had never won first place,” Velazquez said. “This is one of my biggest accomplishments for myself and for my school.”
Velazquez said the team spent days perfecting the recipe, which isn’t allowed to contain added salt or sugar.
“We went through a lot of obstacles involving the calorie count and budget,” she said. “We stayed after school a lot sampling, trying and recreating.”
Velazquez said she is even more excited for the national competition, an all-expense paid trip where the students will present meals to chefs from across the country and meet with lawmakers while checking out the sights around Capitol Hill.
Garcia, a Prosser senior and three-time competition veteran, said the largely Latino team explored a Spanish-style dish, experimenting with pilaf-style rice.
The entree was her favorite part of their menu “because it represented everything our dish was about — it included so many flavors and it was made with love,” said Garcia, who hopes to attend culinary school after high school.
“Being able to get to cook at school gave me a lot of experience and allowed me to get involved in the industry. It really ignited my passion,” she said.
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Propelling the winning Prosser students toward that industry is the $2,000 scholarship that each will receive for Kennedy-King College’s culinary program, according to Leslie Fowler, CPS’ nutrition chief and a judge in the contest.
Fowler said she was impressed by all the entries in this year’s contest, especially Prosser’s sweet, savory and well-seasoned side dish. While Prosser’s meal was the “most cohesive,” the judge said each school had a great new dish to offer.
Other possible student-crafted CPS menu additions include Marshall Metropolitan High School’s peach-glazed chicken legs, and North-Grand High School’s teriyaki chicken-fried rice. Chicago Vocational Career Academy students also created a peanut butter banana wrap that Fowler said she’d like to incorporate on the menu for younger students.
“I think there was at least one item on every single school tray that deserves to be featured on the menu at some point,” Fowler said.