Top student cooks from Soledad face off in Sodexo challenge

Young chefs compete to reimagine healthy lunch

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Fernanda Trenado (right) greets guests as they taste samples of her chicken salad at the end of the student cook-off. (Photos by Sean Roney)

SOLEDAD — The week before the closures of county schools was one of the final opportunities to gather for special events like the Sodexo Future Chefs Challenge in Soledad.

Four of the top young cooks in Soledad schools competed on March 11, after being selected from a pool of more than one dozen recipe entrants. Their objective was to revamp school lunch items using healthy ingredients.

Fernanda Trenado customized a dish called “Fernanda’s Salad.” Samuel Balleza prepared baked chicken and cauliflower rice. Jonathan Becerra served up a “Big Sur Sandwich.”

Michael Ortega wowed judges and earned a victory with oven-baked chicken tenders and sweet potato fries.

“I actually thought that someone else was going to win,” Ortega said. “Once they called up my name, I got really surprised.”

This was the second victory in a row for Ortega, who also won last year, despite being the youngest competitor both years. He said the victory made him want to cook more and help family with cooking when possible.

“He’s always cooking,” said Maria Marin, Ortega’s mother, who said that despite being busy with martial arts and sports, her son finds time to cook up different dishes at home.

Sodexo has been the food vendor for Soledad Unified School District for more than two decades, but has recently introduced the Future Chefs challenge to Soledad schools within the past four years. The nationwide competition is in its 10th year.

“It’s something we’re really proud to do and encourage the district and the kids to get more involved in their cooking,” said Robert Silveira, local Sodexo general manager.

After students submitted their recipes, judges from the company and school district evaluate them based on ingredients and then select the finalists to cook. Both agencies worked together in providing utensils, gear and ingredients. While cooking, food service staff from the district acted as assistants to the young cooks.

This year, the third- through eighth-grade students faced off in the cafeteria of Soledad High School. Competitors not only cooked in front of district and Sodexo judges, but also their families and community attendees. A crowd of several dozen watched every movement the children made as they went through all stages, from opening their ingredients to making final serving portions.

“I was really nervous because I was one of the youngest ones here,” Ortega said. He noted he was more nervous last year, but learned his time in front of the crowds not only in last year’s cook-off, but also at a talent show, to get used to an audience.

“We encourage people to come and see what their kids in their district are doing and try their food, so they had about 30 to 35 samples and they had two display plates,” Silveira said.

The last few minutes were like a TV cooking competition, as the young cooks scrambled to not only prepare two portions of their very best work, but also create dozens of miniature servings.

Ortega’s dish was selected based on the healthiness, kid-friendliness and flavor.

“He had good seasoning on both the chicken and the sweet potatoes,” Silveira said. “The chicken was baked and there wasn’t a lot of oil.” He added, “The sweet potatoes were really good in opposition to regular potatoes. It was healthy, it had great taste, it had good presentation.”

An awards ceremony was held at the end of the cook-off, where all the finalists were honored with medals and certificates.

Ortega’s entry was photographed and information noted down to send to regional judges to decide which students from the entire region would move on to a national competition.