By Frank Sabatini Jr.
For the first time in its 13-year history, a culinary competition open to local high school students, and tailored after Food Network’s high-energy “Iron Chef America” series, was held Jan. 19 in the spacious, gleaming kitchens of Mission Valley’s Art Institute of California – San Diego.
The annual event, Teen Iron Chef, tests the cooking skills of students from San Diego Unified District high schools as each team prepares three-course meals for a panel of judges from the food and restaurant industries. The challenge is further intensified by a secret ingredient students must use in at least one of the courses.
In honor of the Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary, this year’s secret ingredient was Trefoils shortbread cookies, a sweet departure from calamari, prosciutto, brie and tofu required in past competitions.
The students — most of them enrolled in culinary courses at their high schools — took over two of the five professional kitchens at the institute, which offers certificate programs in culinary arts and management, as well as fashion, design and media.
Since the competition’s inception in 2004 at Mira Mesa High School, and with support from the San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association, it has come to include teams from various Unified District schools. Past venues for the event included a local restaurant, the SDG&E Innovation Center, and the test kitchen of Jack in the Box.
“This was a natural place for the competition to be held, and we’ve offered to host it again next year,” said Lauren Loeffler, the Institute’s director of campus relations. “It was also good for our own students to see what these younger-generation high school students were doing. They’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Six high schools took part in the 2017 competition, including Garfield High School, which won the contest for a second year in a row. Its three-member team wowed the judges with seafood pozole, pan-roasted chicken, and chocolate pot de crème, which was laced with the Girl Scout cookies.
The other teams were from Morse, Hoover, Mira Mesa, Madison, and San Diego high schools. They were joined by a competing posse of first-year students from the Art Institute.
With an hour-long deadline to cook, the students presented their final outcomes to several judges seated down the hall in the Institute’s student-run restaurant, The Palette.
As the clocked ticked down, Madison High School student, Xavier Cabus, 16, applied the finishing touches to his team’s dark chocolate fondant with passion fruit mousse.
At another station, Hoover High School student, Rubie Perez, 17, piped salmon mousse onto fresh sheet pasta for making ravioli.
Many of the dishes resembled those served in fine-dining establishments, with others including pistachio-crusted lamb chops accented by red wine and cherry demi glace (Morse High School), calamari fritti with fried capers (San Diego High School), and pan-seared quail with lemon-herb sauce (Mira Mesa High School).
“This competition creates a great platform for the teens to discover flavors, ingredients, and nutritional knowledge,” said Marine Room executive chef, Bernard Guillas, a repeat judge for the event. “They have great energy.”
San Diego Unified School District program specialist Lance Larson concurred, adding that the students are also tasked with purchasing all of the ingredients used in their meal courses.
The food budget, he notes, is provided in part from the school district, the San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association and through fundraisers held at some of the high schools. Of the 20-plus high schools comprising the district, seven of them have culinary programs.
In regards to moving Teen Iron Chef to the Institute, at least through next January on a date yet to be determined, Larson feels the venue is ideal.
“The Institute provided greater space and equipment compared to past venues. The staff has a lot of experience doing similar competitions with their own students, and the location in Mission Valley is great because it’s very central.”
The Art Institute of California – San Diego is located at 7650 Mission Valley Road. Its second-floor Palette restaurant is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call 858-598-1405 or visit artinstitutes.edu/san-diego.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.