TAMPA — Exotic smells wafted from the kitchens at Freedom High School. Eighteen dishes, from Thai curry chicken and breakfast pizza to sweet potato casserole, had been prepared for a group of visiting food critics, and everything had to be just right.
The chefs had every reason to be nervous, because these weren't your run-of-the-mill fussy eaters. These judges were kids.
On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County school district asked students to sample potential additions to cafeteria menus at its second annual Fresh Flavors food-tasting expo. About 200 students, wearing "Official Taste Tester" buttons, filled out scorecards on each dish.
Even before the judging started, several admitted to holding strong opinions on the subject.
"I do not like sushi," announced Grace Torres, 12.
"We want salad bars," said Addison Fell, 10.
Food services director Mary Kate Harrison said last year's judges were tough. Fish tacos found few takers. Buffalo pizza drew more questions than fans since, after all, who eats buffalo? Teriyaki rated teri-yucky.
Harrison did her best to prepare them for the smorgasbord to come, telling students to sample the cafeteria offerings like true dining critics might.
"I want you to really smell it and look at it, and ask yourselves, 'Does this look delicious?' " she said. "And then I want you to taste it."
"Kind of pace yourselves as you go through," Harrison warned. "You're going to eat a lot of food today."
And then they were off.
Grace dashed straight to the breakfast hot pocket and dug in. Her eyes widened in delight.
"That's so good!" she said.
Jordan Algere, a 15-year-old member of the Middleton High School football team, spent time retasting a trail mix bar. It was healthy, he admitted, but he didn't take points off for that.
"Yeah, I'll definitely eat it again," he said.
Madison Padgett, 11, approached the chicken broccoli Alfredo with caution, poking it several times before giving it a taste. Not bad, she said, sounding only partially convinced.
But even the second time around, with a new recipe, the fish tacos struggled.
"It's nasty," Grace concluded. "It tastes weird."
Addison was more complimentary, but her wrinkled nose delivered its own verdict.
"I'm not a big fan, but it was good for something fishy," she said.
Twelve-year-old Mike Parisi took a more nuanced view. He could live with the fish tacos, but still, the kitchen had gone too far.
"I do think they went a little overboard with the sauces," he said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.