NPR Library stages 'Chopped' for kids
Klint LowryNEW PORT RICHEY - Take a dozen contestants, a panel of distinguished judges and a "mystery basket" of ingredients and mix well.
Published: July 11, 2012
Published: July 11, 2012
That was the recipe New Port Richey Public Library's youth services librarian Jessica Meredith borrowed from the Food Network on July 5 as the library staged its own version of the popular show "Chopped."
Instead of chefs from the nation's top bistros, this evening of culinary competition was for teens and pre-teens.
"Basically, I want to plan activities that will reach out to teens," Meredith said.
It seemed to her that cooking has become a hot topic these days for all ages, and many young people are more motivated to get to know their way around a kitchen. Meredith hoped letting kids cut loose in a "Chopped" type competition might draw interest.
As it turned out, she said, this event got more inquiries than any other this year.
"I like cooking," said 13-year-old Liam Plotkin, "and I've done it so many years, since I was little." He reckoned he's been fascinated with food since he was about 4 years old.
Liam is also a fan of "Chopped," as were about half of the kids who came to compete.
For those unfamiliar with the show, on "Chopped," professional chefs compete in three timed rounds, during which they create an appetizer, an entrée and then a dessert. In each round they are presented with "mystery" baskets filled with disparate and sometimes obscure ingredients that they must use in their dish. They are also given access to a full pantry and refrigerator of other ingredients.
Each timed round is critiqued by a panel of food experts for taste, presentation and creativity. One chef is eliminated after each round until a single winner is left.
Meredith made a few changes for her version. Contestants could work alone or in teams of two or three. Each team got a single basket of mystery ingredients: watermelon, graham crackers, dried cranberries and barbeque sauce. They had to use at least one of these in each course.
The contestants had access to electric skillets and sandwich presses, to widen the possibilities.
The most important rule change was that everyone got to play through all three rounds. After all, on the show, there's a $10,000 prize at stake; here, having fun was the main prize.
Of course that meant the judges — Stephanie Lamm, an information specialist with the library, and city council members Judy DeBella Thomas and Bob Langford — had to sample 24 dishes. Before the contest began, they were all confident they had the gastronomic fortitude to see their duties through.
Their bravado may have wavered had they eyed the pantry beforehand. Meredith, who also is a fan of the show, said she was surprised how hard it was to decide what to stock the "pantry" with that would give the kids enough variety as well as the potential to really make something palatable.
The final choices — including but not limited to pretzels, tuna, tortillas, ketchup, mayo, mustard, marshmallows, various fruits and veggies, lunch meats, sponge cake, cheeses — offered the potential for some genuinely interesting dishes or an unholy mess.
Working as a team, Luke and Bethany Thurman wasted no time making the most of the pantry in the appetizer round with something they called "sugar rush," consisting of butter crackers, bananas, gummy bears, hot dogs, pepperoni, baloney, whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
With equal enthusiasm, other contestants took a more restrained approach, and there were some genuinely inspired and good-looking dishes as the three rounds progressed.
In the end, it was Liam's sister, Faith Plotkin and her partner, McKenna Hayden, who took first place, largely on the strength of their impeccably presented cheesy hot dog burrito and side salad entrée. The team was awarded a $10 Target gift card and coupons for Chick-fil-A.
With the library conference room still smelling like a diner during the lunch rush, Meredith said it's very likely "Chopped" for youngsters will be back for a second helping in the near future.
Klowry@suncoastnews.com (727) 815-1067