Did it for the Shirt: Big Blue's Healthy Kitchen Wars

Source: ODU SEES

I walked into the Virginia Beach room of the Webb for the Big Blue Healthy Kitchen Wars put on by Student Health Promotion without any idea of the mayhem and fun I was about to partake in. My second motto is “anything for a free shirt.” - My first is “life is too short to only eat one cookie.” - So, my friend Ashley Mazza and I strutted in, we were handed our free shirts and stole prime seats. The ingredients for the contest were lined up and I wondered who the contents were. I know nothing about cooking, but I wondered briefly if I should have volunteered. Big Blue walked into the room and danced around.

Tracy Conder, the organizer of the event and the Campus Dietitian, stood at the front of the small room in a bright yellow dress and evaluated the volunteers and judges before asking if anyone in the audience cared to participate. Before I even knew it, my hand was in the air, and Big Blue was leading Ashley and I to the front of the room. Tracy assigned us to a team and gave all of the contestants a rundown after we changed into our team shirts.

This year’s contest was loosely based off of Ten Dollar Dinners by Melissa d’Arabian and each team was given ten “Big Blue Dollars” to spend at the “shop.” My team gathered together and quickly glanced at the items we had to work with, debating cooking ideas. Should we do a rice dish? Pasta? What sauces did we have? Did any of us actually know how to cook?

We decided on a twist of Teriyaki chicken. Our purchases included a few chicken breasts, an Asian sauce similar to soy sauce, a lemon, a lime, white rice, two potatoes, black pepper, oil and garlic powder. The cooking was supposed to take an hour total, so we immediately got to work boiling water for the rice and preparing the chicken. We sprinkled the chicken with the black pepper and the garlic powder before cutting them into smaller bits. My duty, in the beginning, was to peel the potatoes. The judges walked around the room watching our cooking techniques.

Just like us, the judges were volunteers. They included the lovely Lam Doan, a graduate student who previously worked in the Office of Student Health Promotion under Conder and Kimberly Martin, a junior psychology student whose friend asked her to volunteer. The judges gave us tips and tricks while they observed.

Each team was allowed to spin a giant wheel for a prize, and Ashley won us $11. We used this to buy onions, mushrooms, zucchini, more lemons, more limes, oranges and squash. We saved a significant portion of the money as well.

Source: ODU SEES 

Just as our cooking was about to take off, onions were diced and mixed with the potato slices and mushrooms in a pan, the chicken was ready to be cooked, the vegetables had been cut and the rice water was beginning to boil - the power short-circuited. Our team had no stove top. Maintenance was called, and shortly they reorganized the cords and we were back in business. Before too long, it happened again. The lights in the room flickered, and our stove tops were moved into the hallway and we were down to two different stovetops. Panic mode began to set into all of the cooks.

This was when the Secret Ingredient was announced. “I think of what is really healthy and maybe unknown,” Conder explained her process of picking out the ingredient. “I want to introduce foods people don’t really think of. Also, it needs to be a food that the teams incorporate into the dish, and cook it, not just slice and serve it.” A person from each team was called to the middle of the room, and they tore open packages to find out what special ingredient had to be work into the food. Jackfruit was the mystery we ended up with. A sweet Asian fruit, we chopped it and tossed it into the chicken to sweeten the sauce. It worked out perfectly. Conder analyzed how “people are unfamiliar with [jackfruit]. I felt like by reading the description on the bag you could incorporate it easily.”

While we cooked, Tracy and the other volunteers from the Student Health Organization worked with audience participation events such as cupcake decorating contests and smoothie making contests. There was also an ongoing raffle to keep the audience engaged.

The event was inspired by Conder’s love of The Food Network, “I’ve always loved watching it, my daughter and I would watch all the time. When they asked me to think of events, I said, ‘Hey we should do our version of the Food Network and get teams to compete,’ and I got 100 percent support.”  

Hastily, we finished cooking the chicken, pouring in the sauce. Then we managed to heat the rice, which turned mostly to mush because it sat in the water for too long, before heating both of our vegetable dishes. While we were in a heating frenzy, I sliced lemons and limes into wedges. We squeezed them into the chicken and rice for a citrus flavor and used the unsqueezed ones as a garnish. I also sliced orange wedges for a topping to our chicken. The citrus added bright pops of color to our dish.

Source: ODU SEES 

When the timer went off, Conder counted down the final seconds as we rushed to make our plates presentable to the judges. Somehow, everything had been heated and spiced. Despite our mush rice, it all looked gorgeous as we handed it over. The team had me present the food and I discussed how we included all the food groups. Starch in the potatoes, carbohydrates in the rice, salt in the sauce, fat in the butter used to lubricate the rice, vegetables, fruit and present it in a low budget way.

The other team presented a pasta dish in a homemade alfredo sauce, and then us contestants raided the catered food while the judges tasted our delicacies.

After they were finished dining, the judges each complemented and critiqued our dishes. The main criticisms were our “overcooked rice which would be better undercooked,” Lam Doan observed, our yummy sauce, “lack of flavor in the vegetables” Kimberly Martin took note of and beautiful presentation. The other team had undercooked pasta, delicious sauce, but not as many food groups. As they were speaking Ashley and I glanced at each other. Their compliments for the other team racked up. When Conder opened announced the winners, I gawked at her. Somehow, our team had pulled through! Our inclusion of food groups and impeccable presentation had wooed the judges!

Our team received gold medals that Student Health Promotion is engraving our names into. Our names are also being engraved on the Legacy Trophy along with the winners from previous years. A few dollars of Monarch Plus also was added to our account, always a fun bonus.

“This is our fourth year doing it,” Conder said. “The blender wars came about last year, but the cupcake wars were original, and the secret ingredient that you unwrap that was original as well.”

I showed up that evening hoping to gain a free shirt and a free meal and wound up with a medal and a sense of pride. Cooking is not something I would consider myself particularly talented in, but now I know how to make a fun dish and learned a lot about working in the kitchen. Next year, I highly encourage everyone to come out and volunteer. No experience was needed for a great time, tasty food and team bonding.