It’s midday afternoon at Poly High School, and student cooks Diana Del Aguila, Martin Avila, Ramon Perez are scurrying around in their classroom kitchen, putting the final touches on a tasty-looking meal: seasoned chicken on top of brown rice shaped like a heart — “Chicken Diana,” Del Aguila says with a hint of pride — followed by garlic steamed broccoli, and a parfait desert made with apples, yogurt and oats.
Approximately eight miles away in North Hills, Monroe High School student cooks Johnrey Pahed, Fahim Rahman, and Mohammed Sulman are similarly hard at work at their menu creation of rotini pasta in marinara sauce, with “blazed” vegetables and a banana.
These are not classroom assignments. The stakes are a little higher.
On Friday, April 8, the teams from Monroe and Poly, along with five other Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teams, will cook and present their creations at Los Angeles Trade Tech College for a chance to compete in a national contest.
The winning recipe here earns its team an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., where on June 6 they will rattle pots and pans against teams from across the nation.
In addition, Friday’s winning recipe will be featured at LAUSD schools.
The challenge: create a three-course meal consisting of a main dish, side vegetable dish and side fruit dish that can be served in elementary, middle, and high school cafeterias with ingredients that are not only healthy — 760 total calories, meeting USDA guidelines — but are also within a budgetary constraint of costing $1.14 per meal.
If that seems tough, it’s what LAUSD cafeterias face every school day trying to provide breakfast, lunch, supper and even Saturday meals for its estimated 765,000 students. Their cost is $1.70 per student, per meal, which includes milk and an additional piece of fruit.
Then they have to convince a highly finicky audience more eager to embrace hamburgers and fries, pizza and candy bars to eat it.
“We have regulations as to what we can offer. It must include a protein, whole grains, fruits, veggies and milk,” said Laura Benavidez, the district’s deputy director of food services.
That was quite a lesson for the students as well.
“The money part is the hardest thing,” said Rahim, 17, a senior. “When you’re trying to create a dish, you want it to taste good. But sometimes to make it taste good you have to use a lot of items. We had to go through a lot of eliminations. We’d create something that was slightly overpriced, or had too many calories, then put in substitutes as the ingredients. And it wouldn’t taste as good.”
Added Del Aguila, 17, a senior, “It was hard to get around the guidelines and regulations they gave us. Everything was really hard, because we have to list all our steps, limit our calories and fat. If something didn’t add up toward the guidelines, we had to change the whole thing. I think we tried 5-6 different recipes (before the one they entered).”
There are 18 LAUSD high schools that offer a culinary program, Benavides said. All were informed about the contest, the rules and regulations regarding the menu ingredients and costs, as well as the deadline to submit a recipe to qualify for Friday’s competition. Seven schools, including Monroe and Poly, met all criteria (although LACES, a middle school entry, is not eligible to go to Washington, D.C.)
Friends Before Teammates
The Monroe team members have all known each other since the ninth grade. So there was no problem developing a chemistry in the kitchen. They even designed a team patch for the top pockets of their white chef uniform tops.
“We were in [their instructor Alex Rasas’ culinary class], and we all showed an initiative to him,” said Rahim, 17, a senior. “He asked if we wanted to do this competition, and we were all excited for it.”
Pahed — who developed the menu — said his mother taught him about cooking, and older brother Chris took culinary classes when he attended Monroe. He eventually decided to take the class as well.
“It is fun,” he said. So much so, that Pahed, 18, a senior, has already taken part in a couple of competitions this school year, SkillsUSA and the Careers through Culinary Arts Program.
Rahim, who prepares the pasta, also started making his own meals at home. “It’s something I really enjoy, and (taking classes at Monroe) has given me more skills to make food for others.”
Sulman, 17, a senior and the sauce-maker, said he wanted to create something that his fellow students would want to eat at school.
“The foods that LAUSD currently serve, not many students like them and most of it is actually thrown away,” Sulman said. “The [Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act first lady] Michelle Obama is pushing forward? Sure it makes the food healthier, but it doesn’t help if they’re not eating it and going instead to unhealthy options like potato chips.
“We’re trying to make a nutritious recipe that also tastes good, like with our marinara sauce. Most chefs actually add more sugar to make it taste sweeter. We don’t add any extra sugar or salt whatsoever. Our vegetable dish of potatoes and carrots are vegetables students actually like. They’re seasoned and sautéd so they have an even better flavor.”
How Poly Team Came Together
Del Aguila was told about the competition by instructor Bob Higgins, who teaches culinary arts catering at Poly. It seemed like a great idea for someone who “likes to cook something every day, so I said ‘why not?”
She had started out with different teammates, but they decided they didn’t have the time commitment needed to see it through. But Del Aguila got lucky, getting Perez to come over from a different team, and Avila, who volunteered to join.
“I wasn’t that interested in cooking or catering,” said Martin, 17, a senior, who makes the broccoli. “I didn’t cook; maybe a grilled cheese sandwich. But she told me she needed one more teammate so I decided to help. And it’s been a good learning experience, learning what vegetables are good for me, and how to create something healthy that’s good.”
The team spent a month developing their entry, starting with a chicken wrap but eventually developing their current menu. Perez, 17 a junior, who prepares the sauce for the chicken, admitted there were times he questioned if they could accomplish their goal within the guidelines.
Now he thinks they have a good chance to win on Friday.
“I’m a bit nervous,” he said. “But it seems the whole team is able to do it and not mess up. I have a lot of faith.”