Do play with your food

What’s more fun than experimenting with food? Getting awarded for it. Area high school students got a chance to explore the world of culinary arts recently and learned how to make foods such as buffalo ribs, crepes and cupcakes.

Photo by Jenny Kirk Yellow Medicine East’s April Rodriguez put the finishing touches on her cupcakes during one of the cake decorating competitions at SMSU.


High school students from around the region had plenty of opportunities to learn and compete recently at the 2019 Schwan Culinary Skills Challenge at Southwest Minnesota State University.

More than 200 students attended the 15th annual event, either challenging themselves in the eight different competitions or taking part in the various sessions presented by industry professions — or oftentimes, doing both.

“It’s been going great,” said event coordinator Gail Polejewski, who serves as career development coordinator for Minnesota West Community and Technical College and Southwest West Central Service Cooperative. “This is a good group. People are definitely going to leave having learned something or having tried something new.”

Lakeview students Lucee Olson, Carly Kosel and Heidi Okseter had positive things to say about the experience.

“This is really fun,” Olson said. “It’s a good experience. And there’s some really good food here.”

Kosel said she especially enjoyed touring the culinology department, where they also had the chance to make custom-flavored Dippin’ Dots.

“I thought it was fun,” she said. “We got to do part of the process of making the Dippin’ Dots. You get like this cream and sugar — you mix it together, add flavor and then you squirt little dots into the nitrogen. It tasted good.”

Okseter, a foreign exchange student from Norway, was quick to highlight her two favorite sessions.

“I learned to make sushi,” she said. “That was really good.”

Okseter said she also enjoyed sampling an Indigenous American and East Indian fused dish prepared by Chris Murray, a regional chef from Taher Foods.

“It’s my first time to try buffalo, so it was a new experience for me,” Okseter said. “It’s the best meat I’ve ever had.”

Mixed in with the red curry encrusted buffalo short ribs was coconut braised bok choy.

“I was surprised to find they had buffalo in India,” Murray said. “That’s where I learned this dish.”

Polejewski said Hy-Vee chef Stevie Content’s sushi session was a really popular one.

“You had a lot of kids who had never had it before and you had kids who have had it, but didn’t realize how easy it is to make,” Polejewski said.

Taher executive chef Chris Loew demonstrated fruit and vegetable art, while Taher chef Eric Rudelius made homemade pasta with the students. The cheese omelet session was presented by Brian Renz, a corporate chef with Taher.

“Chef Chris came last year, but the watermelon lotus flower is a new activity,” Polejewski said. “And the students are very focused and doing a nice job. Chef Eric has never been here before. He is actually Chris’s mentor, so he came along to make pasta. Chef Brian is back again, so the kids are over there flipping omelets. They’re having fun with that.”

Family and consumer science teacher Janet Opdahl brought 26 students — all seniors — who are in her foods class at Murray County Central. She added that most of them had really been looking forward to the event.

“There’s a good variety with all the session,” Opdahl said. “They’re great.”

Opdahl said most of the MCC students were signed up for several sessions and that three of the students were participating in different competitions.

“It’s a good experience for everyone,” she said. “We may even try the crepes (demonstrated by Pillsbury Bake-off finalist Michelle Gauer) in class. It’s fun to try new things.”

Three cake decorating challenges were among the nine different competitions that took place throughout the day. Russell-Tyler-Ruthton freshman Cari Baune participated in one of them for the first time.

“I’m happy with how (the cupcakes) turned out,” Baune said. “I did roses and bees. I decided on those because I like flowers and I know there are bees in gardens. I think (the competition) is fun.”

Yellow Medicine East student April Rodriguez used vibrant colors to decorate her cupcakes. Early on, judges Robin Bednarek and Shelly Block were curious about her decision to use brown sugar.

“Since I had the flowers and grass, I thought I’d add (the brown sugar) for the ground they’re on,” Rodriguez said.

Other competitions included: knife skills, baking science, culinary, menu design, food art and place setting/napkin folding. Along with other sessions, there was also a food trivia event.

Lunch was prepared and served by members of the SMSU Student Hospitality Opportunities.

“It’s a good opportunity for them to practice what they’re learning and feed 250 people — between the students, judges and volunteers, there’s about 250 people,” Polejewski said. “We have some great judges that come from all over. Some own restaurants and some are former family and consumer science teachers who retire and come back and help.”

Marshall FACS teacher Kris Campion said she brought a lot fewer students this year because of scheduling conflicts.

“We brought 18 students,” she said. “Our juniors are all taking the ACTs.”

Campion said she appreciates the opportunities that students have by attending the Culinary Skills Challenge.

“It’s really cool,” she said of the event.

YME’s Alli Steffen won the cake decorating – cupcakes competition, while MCC competitor Celeste Aamodt took first place in place setting.


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