Middle School Students Compete in Master Chef-style Challenge

As part of University School of Milwaukee’s Winter Spirit Week, four Middle School students were selected to participate in a “Master Chef”-style cooking challenge on Thursday, Jan. 30. The event, which was sponsored by FLIK Independent School Dining, paired four Middle School students with professional chefs who served as their coaches and mentors. Jackson Darr ’24 worked with Gene Castelli, FLIK district manager; Lucy Grady ’26 worked with Dan Hoye, USM's director of dining services; Liliana Espinosa ’27 worked with Jeff King, FLIK executive chef; and Tommaso Pantalei ’25 worked with Steve Johnson, Middle School orchestra teacher (and amateur gourmet chef).

All Middle School students were invited to apply for the opportunity to compete on stage, but only one student from each grade was chosen as final contestants. After an introductory meeting with Hoye and King to learn about kitchen etiquette and safety, the students got to work planning their menus using the common ingredient of chicken. After submitting their ingredient list, Hoye purchased any specialty ingredients ahead of the event. They then cooked most of the food on the morning of Jan. 30 in USM’s kitchens, and completed the last steps on stage during a special assembly in the afternoon. Chuck Taft, 8th grade American studies teacher, served as the emcee for the event and Castelli surprised the audience with an impromptu song he wrote and performed just for the contest.

Darr made veggie won tons and fried rice served inside a pineapple, with chicken skewers. Grady made a three-cabbage gyoza with sous vide chicken wrapped in won ton wrappers and steamed, and a maki roll with red pepper, cucumber, avocado and daikon raddish. Pantalei made sandwiches with mustard mayonnaise, lettuce, seared and smoked chicken, and a cherry tomato relish on toasted ciabatta bread. He also had two side dishes of fingerling potatoes seasoned with basil, parsley, and lemon zest, and a cold veggie side of diced bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, and celery. Espinosa made chicken cutlets with butternut squash and potato salad, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with fried basil on top, and a red pepper sauce.

The dishes were judged by Jeff Ballentine, Middle School Spanish teacher; Erin Cermak, Middle School physical education teacher; and Michael Matera, 6th grade history teacher. Liliana Espinosa ’27 was crowned the winner after much deliberation and earned a specialty catered lunch by FLIK for her advising group. All of the contestants applied artistic creativity to their dishes and impressed the judges, their coaches, and the audience with their culinary skills. Congratulations to all who participated!
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