NEW ORLEANS — A team of five young 4-H chefs in extreme South Texas blew away the judges recently when they not only whipped up a delicious seafood dish in fierce competition, they explained that the ingredients they used were those of their ancestors who first inhabited the Americas.
“The 4-H Starr Chefs aced it,” said Yolanda Morado, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service family and consumer sciences agent in Starr County. “They took first place at the Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans, beating out cooking teams from several southern states. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
4-H is the youth component of AgriLife Extension.
The team worked long and hard to make it to competition in Louisiana, Morado said, having previously won competitions at local and state levels.
“In College Station at the annual State 4-H Roundup in June, the 4-H Starr Chefs competed against 4-H teams from throughout Texas,” she said. “They placed among the top four finalist teams, then in the second heat won first place overall. That got us invited to the national competition.”
The 4-H Starr Chefs team includes Janay Rocha, Garrett Gonzalez, Jason Gorena, Brandon Guerra and Crystal Alaniz. The team is coached by Roel and Rolando Hernandez, former Starr County 4-H’ers and owners of Elite Catering Service in Rio Grande City.
The team selected a delicacy known as seafood empanadas, or turnovers, to show off their culinary and presentation skills.
“The 4-H competition was an invitational,” Morado said. “Only top-winning teams from throughout the country were invited. We had already been invited to appear on the Food Network but couldn’t because of conflicting schedules. But when we were invited to compete in New Orleans, I knew this would be good exposure for the team. They would compete among the best in the nation and would be judged by four top professional chefs.”
The event was sponsored by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service 4-H division. To finance their trip, the Starr County team collected $7,000 in six weeks.
“Starr County is said to be among the poorest in the country, but our community backed our team all the way,” Morado said. “Most were small donations, but the entire community got involved. None of this could have been possible without the support of parents, coaches, businesses and citizens. They made sure our team had everything they needed to compete.”
By the time the 4-H Starr Chefs competed in New Orleans, they were well-versed in addressing crowds and judges at many events, Morado said. For New Orleans, they had done their homework. But this was their first foray into national competition; many of the other competing teams had been there before.
“When judges asked about the ingredients they used, team members knew about sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, many from having gone on family fishing trips,” Morado said. “And when asked about the vegetable ingredients, they very confidently told the judges about their culture and how the Aztecs, Incas and others had been the first to farm corn, onions, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and other vegetables. The judges were enthralled. They were very impressed.”
For placing first, the 4-H Starr Chefs won a $1,000 award and $500 for traveling expenses. They were also treated to a tour of a seafood packing facility and a five-course meal of lobster and prime rib at Dragos, a five-star restaurant in New Orleans.
“It wasn’t about the money,” Morado said. “It was about competing against the best and taking the opportunity to let the world know about our proud Hispanic history and culture.”
The chefs praised 4-H and their community for helping them gain confidence.
“This project has taken me from a timid and shy person to one who is confident and eager to meet challenges,” said Crystal Alaniz.
Janay Rocha said, “My 4-H food challenge experience has given me a great appreciation for my community. The support we have gotten has been a blessing and has showed our team how committed they are to young people pursuing their talents.”
Another, Garrett Gonzalez, said, “These 4-H competitions taught me how motivation and keeping the team composed and focused when facing adversity is very important.”
And Jason Gorena said, “Teamwork was what brought us this far, to me it’s not the value of one but the value of all.”
The 4-H Starr Chefs have one more challenge this year: representing Texas in September at the National 4-H Food Challenge at the State Fair of Texas.
[By Rod Santa Ana via AgriLife Today]