Future chefs compete at Washougal High

Excelsior teens help youngsters master annual cooking challenge

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Charlotte Bisila (right), a fourth-grader at Hathaway Elementary School, prepares taco salad with Washougal High School culinary student Carter Murray assisting on March 6 during the Sodexo Future Chefs Challenge at Washougal High School.

Joselyn Guajardo became interested in cooking about four years ago, following the lead of her mother, Elizabeth.

“I love my mom, and she’s always loved to cook,” Joselyn said. “The more she learned how to cook, the more I was interested in how I could make the recipes my own, make them homemade like my mom does.”

Joselyn’s natural talents quickly developed as she became more and more curious about the process of cooking.

“It definitely didn’t take her long,” Elizabeth said. “We make cinnamon rolls together. We’ve made pizzas, and paninis. I would say she has a flair for it.”

One of Joselyn’s favorite dishes to make and eat at home is a mixture of potatoes, ground turkey, squash, corn and peas.

“It’s so good and so easy to make,” she said.

Two years ago, Joselyn, then a third-grader, competed in the Washougal School District’s Sodexo Future Chefs Challenge, selecting pico de gallo de frutas as her dish.

“It was like salsa and fruit mixed together. It was delicious,” Elizabeth said.

Joselyn, now a fifth-grader at Gause Elementary School, returned for this year’s Future Chefs Challenge, held at Washougal High School on March 6. Her recipe for ensalada de frijoles negros y mango (black bean and mango salad) was one of 10 selected as finalists for the event, in which youngsters worked with mentors from Washougal High School’s culinary arts program to prepare their Mexican-themed dishes in the school’s kitchen, then present their creations for judging.

Skylar Stotts, a fourth-grader at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, took top honors for his pineapple guacamole. Second place went to Hathaway Elementary School third-grader Wylie Gibson for his wild goose fajitas.

“We’re all kind of foodies,” said Rene Stotts, Skylar’s mother. “We (usually) make fresh meals, and we don’t eat out much. I think he’s kind of always been (interested in cooking). He’s always loved all different kinds of food. He’s always willing to try anything, and makes anything. He makes his own omelettes. He’s very adventurous.”

Skylar’s mentor for the event was his sister, McKinley, a junior at Washougal High School.

“His older sister loves to cook, so he’s kind of taken a liking to it himself,” said Eric Stotts, Skylar’s father. “They were a good team today.”

Skylar picked the recipe because “he likes guacamole and he likes pineapple,” Rene said. “You read ‘pineapple guacamole,’ and some people could say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound good.’ But it was actually very good.”

Skylar and McKinley, a member of the Washougal girls basketball team that won the 2A state championship earlier this month, prepared the dish for the first time at the March 6 competition.

“We haven’t even been home to experiment with the recipes (because) of girls basketball,” Rene said. “It could’ve gone either way.”

The event’s theme worked perfectly for Skylar, however.

“(My favorite food at home) is probably burritos,” he said. “We have Mexican food a lot.”

The event, part of a nationwide contest sponsored by Sodexo, fits in nicely with the Washougal School District’s philosophy about nutrition and wellness.

“There’s lots of ways that you can cook, but we’re taking it in a healthy (direction) — we’re putting that spin on it (to build) healthy cooking habits,” said Mark Jasper, the school district’s Sodexo nutritional services director.

Jasper said the district wants to get away from the stereotypical “just pizza and burgers” menu and encourage students to branch out and try new foods.

“In the nutritional program we try to focus on engagement, to have people (take) a second look at the menu,” Jasper said. “We try to have a feature each week just to keep that engagement up. If we don’t do (that), we’re missing an opportunity.”

The Future Chefs Challenge also gives the high school culinary students from Washougal High’s Excelsior program a chance to display their skills.

“The students enjoy working with the (Excelsior) students. It’s like their big brother or sister is working with them, not like an adult. It builds family and community,” Jasper said. “I’ve been working with (Washougal High School culinary teacher) Brenda Hitchins, and we’ve had a partnership with different events. There are times during the month when her staff comes and they do some exposition cooking and serve lunch here for the students. That’s sort of a new thing.”

Joselyn is already looking forward to enrolling in the culinary program when she’s older, her mother said.

The fifth-grader spoke with enthusiasm as she worked to finish her dish at the March 6 event.

“When I was looking at the recipes I realized that I loved mango and the beans, which my whole family loves. I like the red pepper. I liked all the ingredients, so I thought I would like a combination of them all together,” she said. “I thought it would be a nice mixture of the mango, because it’s sweet, and the beans, because (they’re) more of a hardy food to complement the mango.”

Joselyn has also learned the value of adapting when necessary.

Her mother said that when Joselyn made the dish at home she forgot to include the lime on her shopping list and had to use essential lime oil instead.

“She realized it wasn’t as powerful as the actual lime juice that she needed, so she tried a separate one to make it work a little bit better,” Elizabeth said of her daughter’s cooking experiment. “The first time she garnished the salad with cilantro, but this time she mixed it so the flavor became more bold, but not overwhelming. She actually pays attention to that. She takes the recipe, and if it works, fine, but if she can make it work better, she’ll do it.”