A baker’s dozen of Orin Smith Elementary School’s fourth and fifth graders turned the burners on high and donned chef’s hats and aprons to compete in the tenth annual Sodexo Future Chefs competition.

Every year, the school’s food provider, Sodexo, puts on the Future Chefs competition where students first come up with a recipe that gels with the yearly theme that the sponsor provides. This year the theme was “your favorite lunch reimagined.” 

Once recipes are submitted, Orin Smith Elementary Principal Brett Ellingson and the school’s cooking staff handpicks the students along with their recipes to participate in the competition that took place on Wednesday. 

In the school’s cafeteria kitchen — usually occupied by four workers at a time for a normal school lunch — the 13 chefs, each accompanied by an adult helper, were buzzing around the tight corners of the cooking space to prepare their dish for about 50 attendees and the judges.

The field of competition included: Allie Smitherman; Sophie Swehoskey; Madison Norwood; Blueberry Harmell; Azami Bortoletto-Eckerson; Charlie Trodahl; Gracie Elam; Violet Gorman; Tyler Sanders; Julia Slingers; Aiyana Goddard; Natalie Gunter and Ephram Jackson.

The four judges on hand were former Future Chef competition finalist Courtney Pinkerton, now an eighth grader at Chehalis Middle School, Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes, Courtney’s mother, Heather Pinkerton and Colleen State.

Courtney, who had a top-three finish in the competition three years ago, said the Future Chefs competition is a marquee event for the fourth- and fifth-graders of Orin Smith Elementary.

“In this grade, it’s probably the most fun thing you can do,” Courtney said of the competition.

Weaving and bobbing their way through the kitchen, students worked side-by-side, taking advantage of every square-inch of space.

Bortoletto-Eckerson was whipping up her marinated chicken with sweet potato confit adjacent to her classmate Goddard who was preparing salmon burgers.

A first-place finish wasn’t on the mind of Bortoletto-Eckerson so much as getting to try her final product and her fellow classmates’ dishes.

“I can’t wait to try (my dish) and everyone else’s,” Bortoletto-Eckerson said. “It’s going to be great!”

Behind Bortoletto-Eckerson and Goddard, Swehoskey was firing her sweet potato meatballs into an industrial-sized oven.

For one reason or another, the students were inspired by something to create their dish. For Swehosky, she allowed her palate to guide her to making sweet potato meatballs.

“Well, I really love meatballs, I really love Italian food and I really love sweet potatoes,” Swehosky said. “ So that’s how I decided I was going to make sweet potato meatballs.”

While Goddard, who was making salmon burgers, chose a recipe that connected with her family lineage. She doesn’t particularly care for fish to begin with, but she says her grandma would be proud knowing she chose salmon as the focal point of her dish.

Included in the “your favorite lunch reimagined” theme were bonus points for chefs who included sweet potatoes in their creation, which eight of the 13 chefs capitalized on.

The students prepared their favorite lunches reimagined for about two hours before they plated their entrée and the tasting commenced.

After 30 minutes, the judges reconvened to tally up the scores and select third, second and first-place winners.

Coming in third place was Elam for her turkey sweet potato chili. Second place was awarded to Bortoletto-Eckerson for her marinated chicken with sweet potato confit and the grand prize winner went to Gunter for her chicken pot pie cupcakes.

“It feels really good, I really like to cook and I’m really happy that I won,” Gunter said.

Gunter will now have an opportunity to submit her chicken pot pie cupcake recipe to the national Sodexo Future Chef competition. If selected, Orin Smith Elementary will make a video of Gunter making the dish while detailing what inspired the dish and telling her story that will be submitted to Sodexo where she could be crowned the champion of the Future Chefs competition.

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