Chefs For A Night

Howard County School Officials Test Their Cooking Skills At Fair

August 15, 2009|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,

Marcy Leonard eyed the four thick New York strip steaks that rested atop the hot grill. Occasional flames jumped up as the juices from the meat dripped below. Her two assistants stood a few feet away, concentrating on chopping zucchini, squash and tomato for a roasted vegetable bruschetta.

"Forty minutes, ladies!" Leonard yelled above the surrounding chatter and other sounds of the Howard County Fair. "We've got 40 minutes."

Her teammates nodded and quickened their pace.

At first glance, one wouldn't know that Leonard has no formal culinary training. Not only is she the principal at Atholton High School in Columbia, she is a vegetarian. But you wouldn't know it by the way she was measuring the temperature of the steaks with a meat thermometer.

Howard County school system employees and students brought along their tongs, cutting boards and whatever other cooking accessories they could get their hands on during the sixth annual Iron Chef competition held Thursday night at the Howard County Fair.

The competition, organized by the Farm City Planning Committee, highlights locally grown meat and produce. The contest started as a promotion for agricultural events in the fall, says Kathy L.J. Zimmerman, agricultural marketing specialist for Howard County's Economic Development Authority. The authority works with the Farm City Planning Committee and wants to offer a scholarship to students interested in pursuing agricultural or environmental science in college.

"We wanted to showcase locally grown fruits and vegetables," Zimmerman said. "It's better for the local economy. It's better for the carbon footprint of the food you eat. It's a fun event."

Top-ranking county government officials and well-known public figures have traditionally participated in past competitions. This year, the Farm City Planning Committee decided to invite the county's 12 local high schools to compete. In addition to Atholton, Hammond High in Columbia, Mount Hebron High in Ellicott City and Marriotts Ridge in Marriottsville signed up.

"It brought the schools, farm and tourism together in one package," Zimmerman said. "The food looked and smelled excellent."

The competition required teams of three - which could be composed of a mix of principals, students and staff members - to use a list of foods and spices provided by organizers. The teams had one hour to make an appetizer, main dish and dessert using the ingredients provided. In addition, teams were allowed to bring their own ingredients to enhance their offerings. The food was judged on taste, presentation, best use of ingredients, teamwork and creativity.

Mount Hebron Principal Scott Ruehl, who was one of the most animated contestants, split his time cooking, pumping up the crowd and doing some playful trash-talking with fellow principal and competitor Pat Saunderson from Marriotts Ridge.

"I still have all 10 fingers!" Ruehl exclaimed to the crowd after he finished dicing zucchini for his team's vegetable pizza appetizer.

Saunderson acknowledged that he was out of his element.

"My kids don't let me near the microwave," he said. "They want to take pictures. They don't think this is possible. This is a great competition."

Meanwhile, Leonard and her teammates - seniors and advanced culinary students Joni Pohutsky and Julia Nicholson - were putting the finishing touches on their food.

"We're all about appearances," Leonard said with a laugh, as she cut the steak into even strips and plated it around a red pepper sauce with honey and a peppercorn and herb sauce. The team also made roasted peaches topped with brown sugar, butter and cookie crumbs. "The food looks good. We look good."

Atholton's food also tasted good, according to the judges. The school won first-place ribbons for taste, presentation and use of produce. The school also won the overall prize.

"She helped us a lot," Pohutsky, 16, said about Leonard.

Nicholson, added at the last minute, said she was able to make the quick transition because of the ingredients.

"It was easy to incorporate them," she said. "They were really fresh."

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