Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Top Chefs Get Trumped By Kid Critic At Great American Family Dinner Challenge

Six-year-old judge gives thumbs-down to healthy foods at Let's Move! cooking showcase...
First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to get kids to eat healthy food has a long way to go. A little boy judging a cooking battle on Tuesday night, designed to promote the Let's Move! campaign, repeatedly spit out bites of his meal, which was created by Top Chef host Tom Colicchio and 3 other James Beard Award-winning chefs. Austin Jackson, the six-year-old judge from Toledo, Ohio, gave the dishes made by some of the country's best chefs the lowest possible scores as White House Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, emcee for The Great American Family Dinner Challenge, made light of the situation to an audience of hundreds. (Above: Kass speaks to the audience after Austin spits out his dinner; the child's mom, Kim Mrkva, looks on)

"Let’s give it up for Kim, this boy’s mother," Kass said. "She clearly has her hands full."

The crowd of anti-obesity activists filling the ballroom in DC's Omni Shoreham hotel laughed and applauded. Kass--and the other White House chefs--have often said that kids are the toughest "customers" to please, and Austin spent his time onstage being both very displeased, and very honest. He didn't like the food, and had no qualms about getting it out of his mouth as fast as possible.

Frowny face: The worst scores...
Austin spit out bites of each successive dish he was served as the audience watched on two forty-foot video monitors. The laughter grew as the acclaimed chefs reacted with mock horror when the boy circled frowning faces on his score sheet, awarding the worst scores. (Above: Kass and the other six-year-old judge, Jeshua Ferro, watch Colicchio cook)

"These are recipes that families can actually use," Kass had announced as the contest started. The recipes had been pre-vetted before the contest by two nutritionists who were introduced to the crowd. The showcase battle was the capper to the first day of a national childhood obesity summit from Partnership for a Healthier America, the non-profit that supports Mrs. Obama's campaign. She gave the keynote address on Wednesday.

Austin and his mom sat beside the other family selected to judge the contest--Antonio Ferro and Laura Castillo, and their six-year-old Jeshua Ferro--onstage at a dinner table, and were personally served by the chefs, who created their three-course dinners with just $10 of ingredients--a budget a family on Food Stamps would use. The teams had 30 minutes to work in two gleaming cooking stations.

No lover of a frisee salad with avocado and shallot dressing and glazed chicken thighs with sauteed fennel, garlic, mint, chives and parsley created by the chef-team of Boston's Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger restaurant and Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, WA, Austin spit his bites into his napkin. He also unceremoniously spat out a shaved carrot and apple salad from Colicchio and teammate Maria Hines of Tilth restaurant in Seattle, as well as their orange Jell-O and buttermilk panna cotta dessert. (Above: Kass holds up a scoring sheet with smiley and frowny faces, and Austin assures him he wants the frowny faces)

Colicchio defended the dessert.

“I got two young kids at home,” he said. “I’ll stand behind the instant Jell-O and buttermilk panna cotta anyday, thank you very much.”

The boy looked dubious as Tsai presented him with a yogurt parfait with cinnamon-covered cashews on top. "It's vanilla ice cream with rock sugar," Tsai joked. (Above: Kass cheers and his mom claps as Austin gives one dish a score that wasn't the lowest possible; Tsai is at right, and the other family judges look on)

Despite comedic pleas from Kass and the chefs, Austin wanted nothing to do with the healthy dishes, though he seemed to like--or at least tolerate--a beef and broccoli dish offered by Team Colicchio. The Ferro/Castillo family, from Silver Spring, Maryland, ate their meal with no spitting action. Both families were selected as judges after winning a sweepstakes from Parents and Ser Padres magazines, co-sponsors of the event.

After Austin gave the thumbs down to his dishes, Tsai ran back to his cooking station and grabbed a huge knife and pretended he was going to stab himself, much to the audience's further amusement (above).

The chefs had used only the kind of equipment that a family might have: A toaster, a blender, a microwave, and a regular oven. At a press conference before the event, Kass and the chefs spoke of the importance of cooking healthy foods for kids, starting as early as possible to ensure children will develop a lifelong love affair with vegetables.

"Throw enough garlic and scallions on...and kids will love" whatever is cooked, Tsai told reporters. Apparently the theory does not have uniform applications.

"America's chefs are at the center of the most important battle to change the future," Kass said.

Colicchio and Hines won the competition, scoring 94 points to Tsai and Smith's 85. Colicchio has visited the White House, and is a big supporter of the Let's Move! campaign. Last year, Kass appeared on a special episode of Top Chef devoted to school lunches. The three other chefs all said they work in their communities on healthy eating initiatives, too. (Above: Colicchio and Hines at work; he's plating the dessert that Austin spit out)

Walmart provided the two competition kitchens, and All-Clad provided the cookware. The two families would be taking it home, but perhaps Austin's family will use it for something other than cooking. Both corporations are partners for the Let's Move! campaign.

The audience had their own dinner cooked by James Beard Award-winning chefs Anne Quatrano, Floyd Cardoz, Koren Grieveson, and Michel Nischan before the showcase.

Those dishes were also supposed to be budget-friendly and delicious: Each three-course meal cost just $4.50 per person. No spitting was observed, but some of the dishes were much better than others. (Above: Tsai plates his yogurt parfait)

*A post about Mrs. Obama's keynote address to the summit is here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama