The nutrition challenge confronting 16-year-old Jen Esquibel, a junior at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, and her classmates is one that would daunt many a seasoned kitchen veteran:

Bruce Randolph EatWell@School contest team members sample their work - chicken Alfredo. Photo by Andrea Burolla

Come up with a menu – a main dish and two sides – that had never been served in the school cafeteria before but potentially could be, would tempt teens to try it, would meet all the federal guidelines for healthy nutrition standards, and could be made for under $1 per meal.

Across the city, four teams of teenagers – more than 30 in all – face the same assignment as they gear up for the second EatWell@School cooking competition.

The competition pits students from Bruce Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, Manual High School and KIPP Denver Collegiate High School. The winning team – to be decided Friday night – will get to compete in a national competition next spring in Washington D.C. Last year, the team from Martin Luther King made the trip.

Given the pressure, the hardest thing for Esquibel might come as a surprise to many:

“Learning how to hold the knife,” she said. “But just last week I learned how to julienne.”

Competition, and a healthy dose of nutrition training

The competition, sponsored by LiveWell Colorado, brings together teens with an interest in cooking and volunteer chef mentors who are culinary students at Johnson & Wales University. They meet for 90 minutes after school, one day a week for nine weeks.

One goal is to teach these youngsters kitchen skills that will serve them for a lifetime, while giving them a healthy dose of nutrition training and exposing them to healthy foods they’ve never tried before.

“Our intention is not to give these kids an alternative career path, but it’s morphed into that,” said Becky Grupe, director of community relations at LiveWell. “An important result of this program is to let them know they don’t have to have a four-year college degree in order to have a career. But we’re also giving them the skills for a lifetime to feed their families.”

The curriculum the youngsters follow was designed by Denver chef Shelley Kark, founder of Kitchen Cue, a culinary education company.

“We talk about nutrition, food labels, safety and sanitation, a little bit about costing products. It’s a pretty thorough program for 90 minutes a week for nine weeks,” she said.

Kark is not at all surprised that students are challenged by handling knives.

“Anyone can cut something,” she said. “But can you cut consistently and safely? That’s the question.”

Last week, J&W mentor chef Sami Fuhrman was putting the young cooks through their paces, practicing on the dish they’ll serve at the competition: chicken Alfredo. Gathered in the cooking classroom at Bruce Randolph, some of the girls chopped onions while others sautéed chicken and others strove to turn out perfect al dente pasta.

“From what I’ve noticed, they’ve learned a lot,” said Fuhrman, whose own experiences with ProStart – a national program to mentor teens interested in a professional culinary career – led her to work with the EatWell@School program. “They didn’t come with a huge background of skills.”

Italian an easy choice for Bruce Randolph team

It was Fuhrman who helped them choose their menu items, after encouraging them to browse through cookbooks at home to find something that intrigued them.

Members of the Bruce Randolph cooking team pose with their mentor chef, Johnson and Wales University student Sami Fuhrman, top right. Photo by Andrea Burolla

“They all chose Italian,” she said. “That’s because Italian tends to be easy to make, and they don’t get served a lot of Italian food in school. Plus, it’s something they wanted to see more of on the menu.”

Rules for the competition require teams to prepare and serve a complete school lunch that fulfills U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for nutrition and that can be made for under $1 per person using only the ingredients typically available in a DPS kitchen. All meals must include at least one locally-produced ingredient.

The meals will be judged on Friday night by a panel of local health and culinary experts.

The EatWell@School program is part of LiveWell Colorado’s campaign to upgrade school food to help prevent childhood obesity by providing children access to healthy, fresh food at school.