HAMMONTON – Local children and young teens were joined Saturday afternoon by a special guest at the debut of “Team Challenge,” Kitchen 19’s new youngster-oriented cooking class.
Lily Nichols, 12, of Cinnaminson won the first ever children’s edition of Food Network’s “Kids Chopped” cooking competition show last April, making her the show’s youngest-ever champion. She wanted to compete for her father, Jeffrey Nichols, who was in the hospital after suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury in 2013. Jeffrey Nichols passed away shortly after Lily won “Kids Chopped.”
On Saturday, after advising, helping and cooking with the “Team Challenge” participants, she introduced the class at Kitchen 19 to the newly formed Nichols Family Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness initiative and answered questions about cooking and her appearance on the show.
The class is inspired by the format of “Chopped,” in which contestants are given a basket of surprise and eclectic ingredients and a time limit in which to use those ingredients in a dish. There’s an appetizer, entrée and dessert round, with one chef being eliminated, or “chopped” by judges after each course.
“We’re going to do things a little bit differently here,” said Olivia Bellano of Hammonton, also known as Chef Belle. “Personally, I would never be able to judge after seeing all the kids work so hard, so it’s not a competition.”
The class starts with each of the young chefs following Chef Belle in making an appetizer. On Saturday, they started with Garden Salad Sushi, a faux sushi roll dish made with tortillas, cream cheese and garden salad vegetables.
The “Team Challenge” class is intended to be a class for children who may be more advanced or too experienced in the kitchen for Kitchen 19’s “Cooking with Kids” class, which is geared toward children ages 4 to 10.
Chefs-in-training split into two teams, each with one of Kitchen 19’s pros aiding and guiding them. They share a mystery basket of ingredients, and a pantry stocked with common items, such as olive oil, vegetables and utensils.
After appetizers, Chef Belle reveals their mystery ingredients and the teams write down ideas and decide on a dish together. Then, the timer starts and both teams grab their supplies and start cooking.
The children use plastic knives to reduce the risk of impromptu finger cuts, but the other tools and equipment are the same ones used by the chefs of Kitchen 19. For anything involving heat or sharp objects, like pan-frying chicken tenders, Chef Belle and Chef Bri guide and assist the students.
They even teach kitchen etiquette and safety practices. As Carson Lee, 13, of Hammonton carries ingredients into the kitchen, Chef Belle tells him to say “behind you” loud and clear so the other chefs know he’s walking behind them. As they cook, the chef-instructors give out useful advice and share anecdotes about working in a restaurant kitchen.
There are no judges in the “Team Challenge” class, as it’s really more educational than competitive. As the timer ran down, the young chefs scrambled to finish everything and plate their food with all the design and aesthetics of a high-class restaurant.
The team consisting of Gabriella Gherardi, 12, and Abby Smith, 11, both of Hammonton, and Carmela DiSanti, 9, of Linwood made potato-crusted chicken sautéed in oil, with black-eyed peas and spinach in a chocolate and nutmeg sauce.
Lee presented the dish he made with teammates, Tiffany Castillo, 10, also of Hammonton, and Isaiah Travia, 8, of Waterford Township.
“We made a chicken salad,” Lee said. “It has black-eyed peas, and the chicken was covered in the mashed potato mix. We have the chocolate sprinkled over it very lightly, and then we made a balsamic vinaigrette to go over the salad.”
Their chicken salad was placed inside halved and hollowed-out bell peppers, and alongside the first team’s dish, both looked like they came out of your favorite fine dining establishment.
“My favorite part was when we were making the salad and chopping all the vegetables,” Lee said.
“I liked when we were stuffing the peppers,” added Castillo.
“I liked coming up with something as a team,” Gherardi said.
“My favorite part was when I was making the sauce,” DiSanti said.
“Yea, Carmela was kicking butt with the sauce,” Nichols confirmed.
Chef Belle says they plan on holding a “Team Challenge” class every month through the summer and fall. Registration is $45 per student, and 10 percent of proceeds from Saturday’s class was donated to Nichols Family Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness.
• Kitchen 19 will host a “Team Challenge” class once A month. To register, visit www.kitchen-19.com, search Kitchen 19 on Facebook or on www.eventbrite.com, or call (609) 878-3488. The two-hour class is open to children and teens of all ages, but designed more for the young chef who already knows their way around the kitchen. Registration is $45.
• The newly formed Nichols Family Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness initiative is still in the process of building a website and forming the organization. In the meantime, Lily’s mother, Lisa Nichols, says that anyone who wishes to contribute or help raise awareness of Traumatic Brain Injury can contact her via Facebook.