Making food with flair

MARSHALL – A total of 250 high school students took part in the 1st Schwan Food Company Culinary Skills Challenge Tuesday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

This year marks the 10th annual culinary competition to be held in Marshall but the first one primarily sponsored by the Schwan Food Co. The event is hosted by Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative and the SMSU Culinology department.

“Schwan’s is sponsoring, which means they donated funds so we could keep this going and bring people in,” said event coordinator Gail Polejewski, career development coordinator at the SW/WC Service Cooperative. “The culinology department runs the cooking competition, and the Service Co-op helps organize all the rest of the things going on.”

The competition spans seven different categories for students to enter and participate in, having grown in the past 10 years.

“The first two years, we actually did the Pro Start competition here, and that was just the culinary cooking part,” said Tami Wee, foods instructor at Tracy Area High School. “Then that moved to the Cities, so we decided to do our own thing down here. We added these different categories. It’s fun.”

Wee, who has been on the board since the beginning, said the experience varies for each student. This year, she brought 11 students from Tracy Area.

“I teach the class called Pro Start, which is to prepare them for working in the food industry, even though not all of them are interested in doing that,” she said. “But when you go to college and get a job, most of the time it’s in that industry. Plus, you’re going to eat all your life anyway. It’s about learning life skills or for a job.”

Wee noted that one of her students who competed two years ago was hired to make gnomes for a party.

“She made gnomes, and somebody contacted her and hired her to make gnomes for a baby shower in New Ulm,” Wee said. “Gnomes are a big deal in New Ulm. She ended up selling them for a really good price.”

Russell-Tyler-Ruthton foods instructor Tammy Borman said she is amazed at how much the competition changes every year.

“It’s just grown over the years, and the kids challenge themselves more and more,” she said. “The Internet is such a wonderful resource beyond what you can teach them. They start looking on their own and researching to come up with things that are out in the industry. That’s the trick because we want them to learn about careers, the real world and industry.”

RTR was represented by 25 students at the competition, including four students who took first-place honors. Jackie Minett won the food art category, while Nicole Enemark topped the cake decorating (icing) division. Borman’s daughter, Jasi Borman, won the cake decorating (fondant) competition, while Shelby Huswedell took first in place setting/napkin folding. While only three places are given out in each category of the competition, everyone takes something positive from the experience, Tammy Borman said.

Tracy Area’s Gosheen Khang enjoyed her experience in the baking science category, which involves changing a muffin/cupcake recipe.

“It went well,” Khang said. “I didn’t want the cupcake to be too sweet, and I didn’t want any salt in it. I just wanted some kind of taste to it. So instead of sugar, I did sweet and condensed milk and coconut milk. And then to have more of the coconut flavor, instead of vanilla abstract, I used coconut abstract. It tasted pretty good.”

The judges must have agreed as Khang ended up taking second place in the competition.

“Usually, you see muffins and cupcakes with toppings all the time, but I wanted to do something different,” she said. “So I came up with the idea of having a filling in it. I used a vanilla and pineapple filling. It was very moist. I called it ‘Tropical Temptations.'”

Tracy Area’s McKenzie Swanson and Esteffany Riviera finished third in the menu design, while Cale Day, who also created a ukulele in food art, was third in knife skills.

“The competition part is just fun because kids get to use their imagination,” Wee said. “We added the food art probably four years ago, and that really blossomed. And we added the cupcake one about two years ago. That’s been a really popular one. There’s so many things you can do.”

Yellow Medicine East brought 17 students, including Grace Irvine, who won the cake decorating (cupcakes) category, and Tiffany Tennis, who took third. Shalesa Nissen was second in food art, while Jessica Donner was second in cake decorating (icing).

Marshall brought 21 students to compete, including Emily Mortier, who made candied replicas of grilled food.

“I had a setback on one of my candies that was I was forming, but I got it to work out,” Mortier said. “I didn’t pack the right candy, so I had to find a way to make the candy work.”

Mortier said she used Pinterest to get ideas.

“I looked around and decided on a grill with pork chops, kabobs and hot dogs on top of the cupcakes,” she said. “It’s my third year competing. I like it.”

As a sophomore, Mortier said she considered a career in culinology.

“I’m not thinking about culinology anymore,” she said. “I just like cooking.”

Minneota also brought 21 students for the competition, including Grant Abraham, Sofia Rabaey and Landyn VanOverbeke, who took third place in the cooking category, which evolved since last year.

“We’ve always given them a recipe to follow, but this year, Tyson donated the chicken breasts, so the students got their pieces of chicken and were allowed to come up with whatever sides they wanted to,” Polejewski said. “They had to get a little creative and use their different skills instead of just following a recipe. They had to understand how it was all going to come together.”

Sometimes, teams have to improvise during the competition.

“We were kind of unclear about timers and not being sure if we could use our phones, we couldn’t keep track of time,” VanOverbeke said. “We also forgot to bring a couple of key ingredients, like the white wine, which would have made our sauce a little better, so we made do with what we had. I think we did pretty good.”

Tuesday’s competition also marked the first time that the trio used fresh ingredients instead of dried ones.

“We did some experimenting before we came here,” VanOverbeke said. “We tried going with hash browns at first for our starch, but we switched to potatoes because they’re a little easier to make and look a lot better. It also makes sense to have chicken, potatoes and gravy.”

Along with special seasoning for the chicken, the team also kicked up the flavor on the asparagus.

“We added lemon to it so it has a really powerful kick at the beginning and then you can taste the asparagus,” VanOverbeke said. “It’s pretty good.”