Mason Gay, donning a custom chef's coat, had plenty of practice before he made his macaroni muffins at Thursday evening's Future Chefs Competition. "He cooks a lot at home," said Amy Gay, Mason's mother. "Him and his brother have 'Chopped' competitions."
Mason, a fifth-grade student at Grafton-Bethel Elementary School, was one of 10 young chefs, each representing a York County elementary school, who showed their budding culinary skills at York High School. The competition was sponsored by Sodexo, the food service provider for York schools.
In addition to letting students flex their culinary skills and creativity, the competition promotes healthy eating and cooking at home, said Michelle Knotts, food service director for Sodexo and York County schools. "We hope the kids want to go home and spend time with mom, dad, grandma or whoever's home and make food," she said.
To earn a spot in the competition, students from second to fifth grade submitted recipes for healthy comfort foods. Students could get a boost if they used bonus ingredients suggested by Sodexo, which included whole grain pasta, mushrooms, turkey and brown rice.
The division received about 200 submissions that were narrowed down to 10 competitors. Students found out they were competing through surprise announcements in class, at lunch or on the school morning news shows, Knotts said.
On competition day, the kitchen at York High School resembled the set of a cooking show, with ingredients placed at each station and school division cafeteria workers playing sous chefs. Students chopped onions, mashed potatoes and blended batters to create their dishes.
Each recipe featured a twist that set it apart from its traditional inspiration. Mason substituted the bacon in his recipe with turkey bacon. Samantha Barnes used roasted peppers rather than chips in her nachos. Adrianna Dumlao used bananas and spinach as the base of her muffin recipe.
All the students said they had practiced their dishes at home since they learned they would be competing. Lynn Kelly said her son Grayson made his meatloaf muffins at least twice a week in preparation. But she said she was used to her son cooking in the house; he's made spaghetti from scratch and always insists on turning the food when they grill.
For the competition, each student prepared a presentation plate for the judges and tasting samples for the event attendees. "The kids present dishes and describe them. It's like TV," Knotts said.
The dishes were judged on taste, originality, ease of preparation, healthy attributes, appeal to kids and presentation.
Mason was judged the winner, drawing oohs and aahs from the audience and judges when he presented his macaroni muffin, sitting on a bed of spinach and tomatoes with a sprig of Rosemary on top. "It felt amazing when they called my name," said Mason, who watches cooking shows at home and hopes to become a chef one day.
Mason's recipe will be submitted to Sodexo's regional-level competition for a chance to compete in the national competition. More than 2,500 students from 250 school districts participated in the 2017 Future Chefs Competition, according to the Sodexo website.
Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692.