Wednesday afternoon was a buzz with nine school food service contestants and their helpers from Missouri and Kansas who were competing in the coveted 2014 OPAA! Food Management Inc., Recipe Contest in Smith-Cotton Junior High School’s cafeteria.
I was privileged to be asked by Sedalia School District 200 Director of Nutritional Services Rowena Nickell to be one of the judges for the afternoon event, and entered the building to wonderful, savory aromas. Also helping judge were district Communication Director Bob Satnan, district Assistant Superintendent Steve Triplett and Will Schuhknecht, with Tyson Foods Inc. To round out the judging Nickell also asked five ninth grade students to participate: Gage Saulbeamer, Brianna Pollitt, Tyler Thompson, Cheyanne Zinck and Brianna Cain.
Sheila Frost, vice president of wellness and nutrition, said the contest involved all of OPAA!’s schools in Missouri and Kansas. She directed me to Rick Turner, of St. Louis, the director of culinary development who was in charge of the championship
“OPAA! operates 120 districts across Missouri and Kansas,” Turner said. “Out of the 120 districts we have district competitions. So there’s 120 competitions, then winners from there go on to a regional competition, we have nine different regions. And these are the nine regional winners. So now the nine regional winners are vying for Grand National Champion.”
The competition is an annual event for OPAA! and the recipes don’t necessarily have to be used in the school’s food programs but are a consideration on the judges score card.
“The event is sponsored by Tyson,” Turner added. “There are very few rules in the competition, but the only big rule is they had to use one of five preselected Tyson chicken products in their recipe somehow.”
Nickell said this was a first for Sedalia to host the championship contest and said the decision for the event to come here was because of its central location. Last year’s event was hosted in Ashland.
“And they’ve already signed us up for next year, and they said that Tyson wanted to be the sponsor again too,” she added.
As judges, Turner told us to select samples from three entries at a time. I began with the “Wet Burrito,” made by Diosa Laduron, of Oak Grove, the “Chicken, Bacon, Artichoke Pita,” made by Vicki Reeves-Herlocker, of Gelena, and the “Buffalo Chicken Pizza,” made by Lee Ann Blue, of St. Joseph. Blue had taken the time to hand paint her pizza boxes with an American themed chicken presenting her school’s initials.
All three were wonderful, but standing out to me and the other judges was the burrito. Wishing I could eat the whole burrito, I set it aside for later, to leave room for the six other entries. I found the pita very tasty too, although I doubted school kids would take to it.
Contestants were scored one to five on taste/flavor, texture, presentation/appearance, acceptability to students and overall quality.
Moving on to “Chicken Enchiladas,” made by Christie Nolie, of Sullivan, “Chicken Alfredo Lasagna,” made by Tina Hale, of Advance, and “Chicken, Spinach, Artichoke Pizza,” made by Mindy Nash, of Holden, I found I loved the artichoke pizza. Although I know most school kids would hear the words “spinach and artichoke” and would revolt. Satnan asked the student judges about the pizza and they agreed that it probably wouldn’t work for school food service.
My next tasty adventure was with “BBQ Chicken Nachos,” made by Sara Engroff, of Greenfield Elementary School, “Chicken Walnut Salad,” made by Carol Petree, of Brookfield, and “Creamy Chicken,” made by Nicole Kidwell, of North Platte.
Both the chicken nachos and the chicken salad were presented very well. The nachos were placed into individual paper serving trays and served with or without jalapeno pepper slices. The chicken salad was placed on Hawaiian rolls and served with small, silver plastic forks. The miniature sandwiches were placed on bright red plates and surrounded by branches of artificial cherries, a plastic pineapple and a chalkboard menu.
In my scoring I found that the chicken nachos won out and hearing the other judges discuss the entries it was clear that the nachos were leading. The student judges said they would choose the nachos, in a school setting, first over the burrito without tasting either. A few of them said if they were allowed to taste the two they would choose the burrito.
My top choice was the nachos, which were very flavorful especially with the touch of barbecue sauce added to the entry. It was one dish I could have requested seconds on for sure! I also liked the chicken, bacon, artichoke pita and the wet burrito.
Before the winners were announced Schuhknecht spoke to the group: “First of all lets give a round of applause to the regional winners. A very good job, I can see why you are the regional winners. I’m so glad I could be here and I look forward to next year.”
Turner announced a six-way tie for fourth place. Fourth place winners received flowers, a medal, a plaque and a gift bag. Taking third place was the chicken pita dish made by Reeves-Herlocker, and placing second was the burrito made by Laduron.
The championship recipe was awarded to the BBQ Nachos, made by Engroff, who received flowers, a plaque and a 52-inch flat screen TV as her prize.
“I just pulled it out a couple days before the deadline,” Engroff said. “I had barbecue chicken nachos before and I thought well I’ll just make those. The first time I tried them I was really surprised how good they were. But I think the kids would really enjoy it.”