Santa Ana Valley High School graduating seniors Daisy Lagunas, Mariah Macias and Rosa Aguilar just came back from Washington DC after winning the Cooking Up Change national cooking competition on June 6. The trio, who represented Orange County, beat out nine other teams and showed that despite strict nutritional, calorie and budget($1.50 per student) restrictions for their challenge, a public school lunch can be more than just tater tots and plastic-wrapped chimichangas.
They served a Moroccan dish of stuffed zucchini, a side salad of roasted and spiced garbanzo beans with pickled onions and julienned carrots, and a spiced pear cup pastry. According to the girls, they wanted to step out of their comfort zone with Mexican food and try something new, settling on Moroccan after forays into Asian and Italian preparations because of Morocco’s similar spiciness to Mexican. They also knew they wanted to use zucchini because of its health benefits and flavor.
Conceptualizing the dish was the easy part, though. Even though they practiced their recipe over and over at home, there were complications when they arrived to compete in DC. Kitchen equipment was hard to find; many of the ingredients like the carrots and cilantro were poor quality; stove tops were claimed and not shared ala Top Chef. They even had to use Yoplait over the Greek yogurt that they were used to.
“The oven times and temperatures were completely scrambled,” Macias said. “All of us had to make something in our dish twice because it just wasn’t coming out right.”
The chicas nevertheless pushed through, persevered, and presented their meal to be judged by ex-Noma chef de cuisine Daniel Giusti and fellow Top Chef alum Kwame Onwuachi, along with other professional chefs, government officials and school food advocates.
“We were really stressed before going in front of the judges,” Aguilar said. “We were kind of mad at each other and mad at ourselves. Things didn’t come out the way we wanted to. We started having a lot of doubts.”
Moments before first place was announced, the girls stood before the judges holding each other’s hands, in spite of their sweaty palms. And as Valley High was announced the winner, they all literally jumped for joy.
“That was the first time I ever cried because of how happy I was,” Macias said. “It felt like all our work had paid off.”
As part of their prize, each girl brought home $2,500 in scholarship awards, some fancy Shun knives, kitchen sets with all the essentials, and a gift card for additional cooking equipment. They even got a chance to stay in DC a little longer and go sight-seeing thanks to High Schools Inc., a foundation that supports the cooking academy at Valley.
With the national win under their belts, the girls had the opportunity to serve their dish to congressmen, even though the meal was prepared by congressional aides, and will now have a chance to implement their dish locally. “The girls just spoke to the nutritional director from the district,” said Tiffany Heremans, the team’s cooking instructor. “Hopefully we can make this dish and try it out in our cafeteria. The girls have advocated that they don’t want their dish to just stay in the competition, but they actually want to see a change in the meals at school.”
All three of the girls agree that the food served in their school’s cafeteria is below average and needs some serious change—so much so, that they don’t eat lunch at Valley. They also mentioned that their peers constantly throw away the cafeteria lunches, eating only the fruit. They just want an opportunity to work with the lunch ladies to help make the meals more appealing to kids.
“We actually take into consideration that we are serving meals to students,” Lagunas said. “They are people like us, so we have to make something that they will actually like.”