While SPW typically features chefs that are a little more “seasoned” we do recognize talent when we see it. So does the Florida Department of Agriculture, which recently selected five budding chefs for a cafeteria cook-off that will brighten up lunch platters through the end of the school year – and launch at least one culinary career.
The five finalists competed at regional high school competitions before advancing to the 2017 “Fresh From Florida” Student Chef Cook-Off finals last weekend. Wesley Hill of Alachua County, Katelynn Denny of Franklin County, Sheldon Riley of Indian River County, Leonard Paez of Miami-Dade County and Gianna Rivera of Hillsborough County squared off in Orlando.
The rules were simple: recipes had to be original and feature at least one Florida-grown fruit or vegetable.
Bloomingdale High School junior Gianna Rivera’s Citrus Chicken Taco with Watermelon Salsa satisfied all those requirements and then some. The dish will be added to school menus across Florida and solidified Gianna’s hopes of becoming a chef.
“She’s been cooking since she was 5 or 6, she’s always loved it, my mom’s a very good cook and they spend a lot of time together,” said Gianna’s mom Amy. “Gianna has cooked for the family consistently two or three days a week since she was 10. I just love that she’s found her passion and has continued to grow with it – never in a million years did I imagine she’d be this good and actually this is what she wants to do for a living. Its always been something she just loves to do, but I think she realized when she won the regionals she could make a career out of this.”
Gianna says she’s always been “high-maintenance” when it comes to food.
“I guess you could call me picky, but I know exactly what I like,” she says. “I’ve always been very high-maintenance with food so I learned early I just might as well learn to cook for myself.”
The first dish she remembers making with her grandmother – and still a favorite – is beer stew. She wasn’t even old enough to buy the main ingredient – and still isn’t.
Gianna takes culinary classes at Bloomingdale under the direction of Chef Rene Marquis, who formerly served as Gen. David Petraeus’ personal chef and has appeared on TV’s “Cutthroat Kitchen”.
“He’s just a raging chef,” Gianna laughs, “I just love him. He’s really passionate and really inspiring. He’s not lovey-dovey, he’s very straight up, he’s definitely a Chef Ramsey – but I’m the same way, I’m the girl version of that.”
When creating her winning recipe, Gianna knew she had to focus on fresh Florida fruits and vegetables – but she also had to create a dish that kids would like.
“My main goal was to make it kid-friendly, something anybody could enjoy. High school and middle school students will eat anything but with elementary school, it’s hard,” she says. “I knew that everybody loves tacos, nobody doesn’t like tacos. I was thinking of a salad or something at first, but I thought no, a kid won’t eat a salad.”
She decided to incorporate as much whole fruit as possible into the dish, zesting oranges and limes. At first she used tomato salsa as a topping – but a quick test drive with her four younger siblings gave her a better idea.
“I said, nope, let’s try watermelon – kids like sweet stuff so I thought a sweet salsa would be good and watermelon made it exactly what I was trying to go for.”
She knew she had a hit on her hands when even her 4-year-old brother liked it. “I knew if my baby brother would eat it anyone will because he’s very, very picky.”
Next year Gianna will get to have culinary class for two periods. After graduation, she hopes to go to the Culinary Institute of America.
Recipes like this one will almost certainly get her in.
Here are the recipes of the runners-up, all worthy of making at home: