The chefs at Blake High School weren't typical cooks. One wore red Converse sneakers. Another had to stand on a milk crate to reach the counter.
The five student chefs were finalists in the Hillsborough school nutrition services Cook It Up cookoff. They all whipped up an original recipe Thursday night for a panel of judges that included local culinary professionals and Wharton High School culinary students.
Madison Gentry, 12, a seventh-grader at Barrington Middle School, took home the top prize: two tickets to the Justin Bieber concert in Orlando on Friday. She created a dish called All Around the World with ingredients that included teriyaki chicken, Spanish rice, okra and mozzarella cheese.
"I thought I should go beyond the expectations and put more food groups in it than they wanted," she said.
She was inspired by the Justin Bieber song All Around the World. She entered for the chance to see her favorite singer in concert, she said, but she also takes a culinary class at school.
"I like to see how the kitchens are so different between the middle schools and the high schools," she said. "I didn't know how to cut things certain ways, but now I do."
The other finalists were Nalonna Graybeal, 11, Mintz Elementary; Amber Buchanan, 13, Rampello Downtown Partnership School; Arianna White, 14, Memorial Middle School; and Kayla Sieper, 11, Bryant Elementary. They submitted original recipes with an essay explaining why their entry was nutritious. They were selected from about 100 entries districtwide.
For the contest's second year, Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition, wanted to make it an event. Last year, students were judged only on their submitted recipe and essay. This year, the finalists cooked their meals with the help of a sous chef from their school in the Blake High kitchen. Cameras broadcast them on a big screen to their friends and family in the cafeteria, creating a mini cooking show.
"We want to show them they can have meals that are flavorful and affordable," Harrison said.
The finalists' meals will be featured in their schools. Gentry's will be featured districtwide. She will also appear at Radio Disney's studio on the Kid's Concern Show, and her school will receive a lunch party hosted by Radio Disney.
The judges included Mike Beadles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive chef; Brian Ford, the Bucs' vice president of business administration; Jason Dame, chef at Datz in Tampa; Isabel Laessig, founder of the Family Foodie blog; and Michele Northrup, founder of Intensity Academy Gourmet Sauces.
Beadles said he was looking for creativity and diversity in the entries, and "what I think my kids would eat and enjoy," he said.
"I just love to see the creations young minds are going to come up with," Northrup said. "Many students feel they're told what they can do." But teaching them how to cook gives them a sense of independence, she said.
That's what Sieper liked about the contest. She was nervous because it was her first time cooking, but liked putting her healthy spin on meatball soup.
It was Graybeal's first time cooking, too. She liked learning how to work as a team with her sous chef. "It went great," she said. "We actually got done in the time we needed to."
Buchanan and White used spinach in their recipes. "At first I didn't really like spinach, but then I decided to try it," Buchanan said.
Cooking is White's favorite hobby. She likes to cook for her family, and is excited to try new recipes such as sushi. "It's fun, it's active," she said. "When they eat it, people's faces light up."
Keeley Sheehan may be reached at email@example.com.