Iron Hawk cooking competition returns to Mountlake Terrace HS

Nikola Johnson (left) and Cassidy Sadler (right) prepare their winning dish — fresh spring rolls, zucchini noodles with spicy peanut sauce and chicken.

After a five-year absence, the Iron Hawk Cooking Competition is back at Mountlake Terrace High School, giving students a chance to showcase their culinary talents. The competition held on Wednesday, May 15 was the first the school had held since it was discontinued in 2015.

Kimberly Nelson, a career technical education (CTE) instructor who began the cooking competition in 2001 with fellow instructor Patti Weber, said the intention was to allow students an opportunity to express themselves through their cooking. Iron Hawk’s success at MTHS inspired other Edmonds School District high schools to begin their own version of the competition.

“It quickly became a hit and the other three high schools in our district joined in,” Nelson said.

After hearing about the event, the Edmonds Community College Culinary Arts program held an inter-school competition for winners from each high school. However, when Weber retired and Nelson was no longer teaching cooking, the competition lost steam and fizzled out. Now, with the help of fellow MTHS instructor Molly McFadden, Nelson said the competition is making a comeback.

“We didn’t change too much because we’d already done it for years,” she said. “We’d really gotten it down to a good routine.”

If the competition sounds familiar, Nelson said it is modeled after the Iron Chef cable television cooking show, with contestants from each school putting their own personal touch to the name by including their school’s mascot. The competition is not only similar in name to the Iron Chef program, but also to the show’s expectations.

Since Nelson and McFadden have both worked in the culinary field, “we make them follow industry standards,” Nelson said.

In the past, the competition has been a starting point for students interested in a culinary arts career. Melvin Banuelos, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate who won the competition in 2010 and 2011, works at Currant Bistro in Seattle. Banuelos returned to his alma mater to serve as a judge in the competition.

“Methods of preparation and sanitation are big factors,” he said when describing what he would be looking for in the contestants.

Six teams of two — one chef, one sous chef — competed in the May 15 Iron Hawk. To participate, students are required to have taken Chef 1 and 2 courses, and submitted an application and menu for approval. The menu must have three items — an appetizer or soup, a main dish and a side item. Contestants’ meals are judged based on industry standards like plating and presentation, taste and texture, and cooking methods.

“We’re excited that there are 12 kids,” Nelson said. “We didn’t know how many would apply because we hadn’t done it in a while.”

Nelson said she hopes the cooking competition will continue, although finding staff may be a concern. The competition has suffered in the past because there were not enough staff members to organize the event.

The competition is funded partly by MTSH staff contributions, Nelson said.

“It’s not cheap, but it’s something we think is valuable,” she said. “The fact that these kids are pulling this off at this age is a pretty big deal.”

Taking home the first-place prize this year for Iron Hawk were Cassidy Sadler and Nikola Johnson with their fresh spring rolls, zucchini noodles with spicy peanut sauce and chicken

–Story and photos by Cody Sexton

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