Today’s consumers have all developed their taste for food, as well as their eating habits, in childhood. We all eat the way we do partly because of meals and food memories from when we were growing up, including school lunches. Though Lunchables and mystery meat are iconic items in the cafeteria, they don’t exactly constitute an ideal diet. That’s why at the 2019 StarChefs International Chefs Congress, the Chef Ann Foundation held their first ever Real School Food Challenge — a contest for professional chefs to create affordable, nutritious dishes for kids.

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“Kids define the next generation of flavor, taste, and expression. And if we expose kids at a young age to the beauty of cooking with love, then they’ll grow up and connect with that as being the most important thing as opposed to highly-processed [fast food], which is what really represents our food system in America,” said Chef Daniel Asher of River and Woods in Boulder City, Colorado.“The school lunch program across the country has been terribly neglected as far as the principles of scratch-cooking, food made with love, and food that exposes kids to our global cultural experience. So I wanted to bring that in, those elements [to my dish].”

Asher prepared Asian-style stir-fry chicken sliders with a low-sugar and low-sodium quick-pickled banh mi vegetable mix (green papaya, carrots, celery root, and daikon radish), baby kale, and peanut sauce. “So kid-friendly, great flavor profile, great connection to our global community, and an awesome opportunity to reintroduce scratch-cooking principles, but in a very approachable and easily executed way for our school system in America.”

Meanwhile, other chefs decided to take a more basic approach to the challenge. “I’m here representing &Pizza, and there’s one thing that all kids love, which is pizza,” Chef Erik Bruner-Yang said. The thought process behind making his dish was to “figure out something that gets [kids] excited to eat, but also give them a nice balanced meal.” So he came up with a calzone with garlic ricotta, mozzarella, broccoli, and vegan sausage. “When I grew up I loved Hot Pockets,” he explained. “So we went with this kind of version of a Hot Pocket calzone, and our big twist is using the vegan sausage. It’s plant-based, so kids that don’t eat meat or do eat meat can enjoy it.”

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Chef Nathaniel Zimet of Boucherie in New Orleans already has experience providing school lunch to a couple of private schools in his city, and decided to showcase a meal that he would typically serve there. Zimet served red beans and rice with a turkey andouille. Chef Stephen Williams of Bouquet Restaurant in Covington, Kentucky has also been working with Chefs Collaborative in Ohio and Kentucky to bring better, healthier meals into the school system. For the Real School Food Challenge, he prepared his own version of spaghetti and meatballs.

“We’ve got a three and a four-year-old, and we thought about what they would eat, while getting as much nutritional things into it,” Williams said. “We took ground beef, and we cut that with zucchini, and we used gluten-free oats as a binder so it stayed gluten-free, just in case; and then we took our tomato sauce, and buzzed that with spinach to thicken it.”

However, it was Chef Mihoko Obunai — who currently works as a school chef at Midtown International School in Atlanta — who won the competition with her Japanese chicken curry with rice. “This is a very typical Japanese school lunch because it’s nutritional, tasty, and cheap,” Obunai said. She developed the recipe so that each meal costs as low as $1.19. She also made sure that the dish wasn’t too spicy, so that kindergarten and high school kids alike can enjoy the food.

Though Obunai started out working at both fine dining and casual restaurants, she decided to dedicate her life to making sure school children could eat quality food. “I wanted to be more involved in something for the future,” she told the Chef Ann Foundation. “School meals are important because it’s like education for children on how to eat, and then when they grow up they know how to cook and eat well.”

Continue reading, find part 6 here: Chef Diego Guerrero Shows How He’s Breaking the Rules of the Fine Dining Scene

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