Student chefs to serve mayor lunch, compete nationally

June 6, 2013

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
Students at George Washington High School created this dish of Chicken Rancheros, Elotes and Fruta de Tropico to win the local “Cooking up Change” competition in November. They’ll serve it to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and compete in Washington next week.

Five Chicago high school students are cooking up a gourmet lunch for Mayor Rahm Emanuel today, before they head to Washington D.C. to compete in a national cooking competition.

The “Cooking up Change” competition, put on by the Healthy Schools Campaign, asked students to create a meal using only ingredients available in their school cafeteria.

In November, Washington High School students took the top prize in the Chicago competition with a dish they call “Chicken Rancheros, Elotes and Fruta de Tropico.”

On Monday, they will go up against Bruce Randolph School (Denver, Colo.), Sandalwood High School (Jacksonville, Fla.), West Adams Prep (Los Angeles, Calif.), Craigmont High School (Memphis, Tenn.), Valley High School (Orange County, Calif.), Beaumont Career and Technical High School (St. Louis, Mo.) and The Career Center (Winston-Salem, N.C.).

Vanessa Arnold, a junior at Washington High School, said it took a lot of experimentation to come up with a winning dish.

“We started off with a bunch of things that we didn’t know what we were doing with and we really didn’t like,” Arnold said. “This is our home cooking, this is from our culture. We took what we thought we knew best and made it into something that we wanted and we liked and we thought other people would like in our lunchroom.”

Her classmate, Mariana Nava, also a junior, said the limited ingredient list was a challenge.

“It was hard because you can’t use salt or butter and everything tastes good with butter, but it doesn’t always have to be a fat to be good,” Nava said.

Both Nava and Arnold want to go to culinary school when they graduate, but they said the culinary program at Washington is popular among a lot of students. 

“Everybody has to eat and you’re going to learn how to do it the right way here,” Arnold said. “Even if you don’t want to do this for the rest of your life, you have this behind you in order to do anything that you want.”

CPS offers culinary arts programs in 20 of the city’s high schools serving about 2,200 students. About 85 percent of students who go through the program end up in industry-related careers or go on to post-secondary education, said David Blackmon, the head of CPS’s Hospitality and Culinary Arts programs..

He said students who go through the three-year program get the chance to work in some of the city’s top restaurants, including Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Bill Kim’s Urban Belly, and annually, students receive about $1 million in scholarships to attend culinary schools, iincluding  Le Cordon Bleu, Washburne Culinary Institute and The Culinary Institute of America.

The winning recipes created by students at Washington and other high schools across the country will also be served at the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria next week.

Becky Vevea is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.