Hartford culinary arts students ready for Jr. Iron Chef competition

Chef Patrick Gobeille, left, critiques a dish cooked during a practice session for Junior Iron Chef Vermont by Hartford Area Career and Technology Center culinary students, from back left, Gianni Hossler, 16, Brayden Bennett, 16, Andrew Singleton, 16, Greyson Renninger, 17, and Brandon Driver, 17, in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 1, 2024. On Saturday, March 9, students from the program will travel to the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, Vt., for the competition where they will have 90 minutes to prepare their predetermined recipe - a ricotta stuffed portabella mushroom with Roma tomatoes and asparagus on top of maple polenta with balsamic marinade. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chef Patrick Gobeille, left, critiques a dish cooked during a practice session for Junior Iron Chef Vermont by Hartford Area Career and Technology Center culinary students, from back left, Gianni Hossler, 16, Brayden Bennett, 16, Andrew Singleton, 16, Greyson Renninger, 17, and Brandon Driver, 17, in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 1, 2024. On Saturday, March 9, students from the program will travel to the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, Vt., for the competition where they will have 90 minutes to prepare their predetermined recipe - a ricotta stuffed portabella mushroom with Roma tomatoes and asparagus on top of maple polenta with balsamic marinade. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Nick Caver, 17, tosses asparagus and Roma tomatoes with olive oil, parsley and garlic during a practice session at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 1, 2024, for Junior Iron Chef Vermont. The competition challenges teams to use locally sourced ingredients to make simple, economical and nutritional meals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nick Caver, 17, tosses asparagus and Roma tomatoes with olive oil, parsley and garlic during a practice session at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 1, 2024, for Junior Iron Chef Vermont. The competition challenges teams to use locally sourced ingredients to make simple, economical and nutritional meals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Chef Patrick Gobeille cools a spoonful of polenta before tasting as students in his junior class at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, Vt., practice on Friday, March 1, 2024, for the upcoming Junior Iron Chef Vermont. Goebeille watched students as they cooked, occasionally offering advice, and critiquing the final product. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chef Patrick Gobeille cools a spoonful of polenta before tasting as students in his junior class at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, Vt., practice on Friday, March 1, 2024, for the upcoming Junior Iron Chef Vermont. Goebeille watched students as they cooked, occasionally offering advice, and critiquing the final product. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Jillianne Ballou, 17, middle, removes her gloves as Nick Caver, 17, left, and Reghan Allen, 17, right, celebrate after completing their recipe during a practice session for Junior Iron Chef Vermont at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, on Friday, March 1, 2024. During competition, students assemble  all of their ingredients in

Jillianne Ballou, 17, middle, removes her gloves as Nick Caver, 17, left, and Reghan Allen, 17, right, celebrate after completing their recipe during a practice session for Junior Iron Chef Vermont at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, on Friday, March 1, 2024. During competition, students assemble all of their ingredients in "mise en place," meaning "everything in its place," a timer is started and teams have 90 minutes to execute their cooking and plating. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

After completing his critique of a team's finished dish, Chef Patrick Gobeille instructed the students to taste each component individually to assess the results. Nick Caver, left, starts with a parmesan crisp that Gobeille prepared as a special touch for all the teams, as his teammates reach for their utensils. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After completing his critique of a team's finished dish, Chef Patrick Gobeille instructed the students to taste each component individually to assess the results. Nick Caver, left, starts with a parmesan crisp that Gobeille prepared as a special touch for all the teams, as his teammates reach for their utensils. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Lyric LaBelle, 17, of Lebanon, snacks on leftovers from his Junior Iron Chef Vermont practice session at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 4, 2024. Teams cooked two dishes from their recipe and presented the best for a critique, leaving leftovers to share. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lyric LaBelle, 17, of Lebanon, snacks on leftovers from his Junior Iron Chef Vermont practice session at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 4, 2024. Teams cooked two dishes from their recipe and presented the best for a critique, leaving leftovers to share. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By NICOLA SMITH

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 03-07-2024 7:41 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — On a gray morning this week, a team of young cooks from the Culinary Arts program at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center gathered around a countertop and stared intently at a plate, as if it were a work of art going up for auction. 

A mound of creamed spaghetti squash was in the plate’s center, circled by a stir-fry of yellow peppers, cherry tomatoes and lightly wilted spinach and topped with neat triangles of grilled tofu. There was a whiff of garlic and butter in the air.

This was no ordinary entrée. The team, all seniors at area high schools who are in their second and final year in the Culinary Arts program, created the dish as their entry for the 16th annual Jr. Iron Chef VT competition, which is being held Saturday at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. The competition is sponsored by Vermont Afterschool, a nonprofit organization in Burlington that works to bring children and teenagers into afterschool and summer programs.

Forty teams from around the state will participate, including this senior team and a junior team from the Hartford Tech Center, both under the direction of instructor Chef Patrick Gobeille, a graduate of Hartford High School and the New England Culinary Institute. It’s the first time the Tech Center will have sent teams to the competition, Gobeille said. 

The competitors will be judged on their execution, teamwork and creativity, as well as the taste of the dishes and their use of local ingredients. The 19 volunteer judges, who hail from throughout Vermont, include chefs, farm-to-table coordinators, teachers, restaurant staff and workers in Community Supported Agriculture, among other food-related professions.

On Wednesday the senior team held its last practice run, and each cook had an assigned role: stir-frying, emulsifying, plating and cutting the grilled tofu into neat slices. They julienned and chopped, roasted and sautéed. It was like the Emmy-winning streaming series The Bear, but without the swearing.

Cole Hewson, a home-schooled senior from Springfield, N.H., tended to a sauce in a pan on the stove, whisking it steadily.

“I was put on this job specifically because I do emulsion correctly,” Hewson said.

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Gobeille walked over to observe. 

“What do we have to keep an eye out for?” Gobeille asked Cole.

“Its temperature,” Cole answered. “Warm, but not hot.”

Lee-ann Conkey, from Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Enfield, scooped out the baked spaghetti squash and folded into it a mixture of white balsamic vinegar, finely chopped basil, goat cheese and butter, and salt and butter. 

“I’ve always loved cooking and baking and I heard about the program,” said Conkey, who will be studying pastry arts next year at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia, N.H. 

There are currently 24 students in the Culinary Arts program, which is open to juniors and seniors. The course counts toward the credits needed to graduate from high school. There are 16 sending high schools, including Hartford, Windsor, Mascoma, Woodstock and Lebanon, as well as Thetford Academy, The Sharon Academy and Vermont Christian School, Gobeille said. 

The Hartford Tech program is the only certified American Culinary Federation program in Vermont, Gobeille said. After two years of study, which counts toward the credits needed to graduate from high school, students earn a certificate of completion.

While the chain of command in a restaurant kitchen bears a resemblance to a military hierarchy, and some chefs are known to rule by harsh decree, Gobeille encourages his students to express themselves in their work. “I want them to take what I’ve taught them and turn it into their own, because that’s what education is,” he said. 

Not every graduate will go on to work in the restaurant or catering trades, but the skills they’ve learned in the Culinary Arts program, including the importance of teamwork, communication, leadership, problem-solving and critical thinking, transfer to any career, Gobeille said. For some students, it is a way station between high school and college. For others, who may be uninterested in college, it’s another path forward.

“We’re training kids to go out and be career-ready. We give them the confidence to model the behavior of adults,” he added.

The value of an after-school program such as Jr Iron Chef Vt is that it gives children and teens “opportunities to build their leadership, teamwork, and communication skills, all while keeping them engaged and safe during out-of-school hours,” wrote Nicole Miller, the executive director of Vermont Afterschool, in an email.

Rowan Royael, a senior at The Sharon Academy enrolled in the Culinary Arts program for a simple reason.

“I love food. That’s a big part of my life,” he said. “It’s been fun to come and learn about the techniques. ”

Royael is unsure whether he will go on to make a professional career in food. But he is “really excited for the competition,” he said. 

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.