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UPDATE: HISD Culinary Students Put Their Skills on the Line

UPDATE: The Westside High School culinary team won the Houston District Cooking up Change competition this past weekend. Barrosha Boykin, Santiago Castaneda and Andrew Winkle prepared a chicken chili sandwich with fajita chicken strips, black beans and chili powder and a sauce made of tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, and red and green bell peppers on a whole wheat roll; they called their main dish the "Lonestar Chicken Chili Sub." The team also made a parfait of toasted rolled oats, honey, fruit cocktail and vanilla low-fat yogurt, as well as a side dish of grilled carrots and zucchini.

This team will travel to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national competition on June 9. The Westside High School team representing Houston ISD will compete against the winning teams from Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla., Winston-Salem, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Wichita, Kan., and Little Rock, Ark.

You may not know it, but the Houston Independent School District has an incredible culinary arts program, and on Saturday, April 12, seven teams of culinary students from four HISD schools will compete in Cooking up Change at the local level in hopes of advancing to the national contest in Washington D.C. The local competition takes place at Rice University and is open to the public, beginning with tastings from noon until 1 p.m., followed by the judging. According to Ray Danilowicz, HISD's food services executive general manager, the competition requires students to create their best dishes following national school lunch standards, and this is the first time Houston schools have taken part.

"It's going to feature culinary students from ten large school districts from around the country," Danilowicz says. "And what it's designed to do is to get culinary students involved in cooking meals that conform to the type of meals that are served in school lunches, conforming to national school lunch standards, which means they have to meet very, very rigid nutritional guidelines. They have to be the type of meal that can be cooked in school cafeterias with limited equipment -- you know, follow basic steps with [the] type of ingredients that are available in the program."

The seven teams of culinary students are representing four schools: Westside High School, Harper Alternative School, Davis High School and Barbara Jordan High School. The students from each school will present their dishes to a panel of judges, and the winning team will receive a trip to Washington D.C. to compete in the national contest. Danilowicz says the winning team will present their dish to Congress.

In addition, the winning dish, along with its side dishes, will be added to the HISD high school lunch menus next school year.

"But, quite frankly, we are going to take a look at the ideas we get from all the teams," Danilowicz says. "Not that we're going to promise that we'll use all of them, but we're going to take the ideas from all these students, and see where we go with them and share them with our chefs here."

The teams spent months fine-tuning their recipes (main course and sides), adhering to strict restrictions on fat, sodium, sugar and calories. In addition, each meal must cost out at $1 or less.

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The students representing the Westside High School team -- Barrosha Boykin, Andrew Winkle and Santiago Castaneda -- feel confident about the dishes they will present to the judges on April 12, despite the difficulties and challenges they faced during the prep process.

"The competition itself has been sort of challenging, but exciting at the same time," Boykin says. "Challenging, because it took a lot of effort into preparing our menu because of some of the restrictions that we had, which were also an eye-opener. We have to meet so many guidelines, such as pricing and nutritional value, which was difficult on its own; but also, it was exciting because we got to see a different side of culinary that we're not really exposed to in the classroom."

Jasmine Anderson, one of the sponsors and mentors of the Westside High School culinary team, says watching her students' confidence grow over the past few months has been extremely rewarding.

"I am very proud of them in the work that they have accomplished," Anderson says. "They never once were like, 'We just can't do this; we're not going to be able to do it, so let's quit.' They came up with an answer. They came up with a solution. They changed their recipe around...They've learned how to meet deadlines; they've learned more about costing and nutrition, and it's just awesome to see how much they've grown in only two months. To be able to see their peers eat their food, and see the smile on their faces when the food was complete and they had a plate to show their peers, and their peers loved it, and they just smiled from ear to ear with how great their dish came out."

"Planning is everything," Winkle says. "In this competition there are a lot of restrictions on nutrition. For example, the recipe that they gave us, there is no salt or sugar, so we had to come up with several replacements that could add the same amount of flavor and taste good as well."

Winkle says some of the substitutions included baking powder, bell peppers and jalapeños, used to add saltiness and spiciness to dishes and increase overall flavor.

"I joined the culinary arts program because when I was in middle school, I was wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my life," Boykin says, "and when I heard about Westside High School, I saw on the magnet program that they had culinary arts, and I thought it was a unique and different way to have a career."

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As Danilowicz listened to the Westside students discuss how much they enjoy the culinary arts program and talk about their preparation for the Cooking up Change competition, he said he was thrilled to hear what they had to say.

"This is exactly what we wanted to accomplish, because so many people don't understand how complex the nutritional constraints are here -- the restrictions on fat, the varied type of calorie guidelines, the sodium restrictions, etc. -- and to have these students talk about their learnings from this just lets me know how successful this program has been already," Danilowicz says.

He believes that the success of this program will help students learn about healthy eating, and also improve the HISD school lunch program.

"It's going to help us educate the community about healthy eating, about healthy dieting, about the fact that you can eat great-tasting food that is very good for you and very nutritional," Danilowicz says. "And at the same time, I think it's going to help these students communicate to us what kind of foods they like, what kind of foods are good that meet these parameters. This is going to be terrific for Houston, for the Houston Independent School District food service program."

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