Lamar County Culinary Team Captures State Title With Dish Featuring Mississippi Ingredients
From left to right: Smokin’ Hot members Donovan Reid, Vikayla Oatis, Bethanie Pheal, Aleiyah McGee, and Oak Grove High School culinary arts instructor Debbie Miller
Photos by Carl Smith
A little smoke goes a long way for Oak Grove High School’s culinary team.
A creole-seasoned smoked chicken wrap with a side of sweet potato fries created by the four-student team—aptly named Smokin’ Hot—won best dish in a Mississippi Department of Education-sponsored competition in January and could wind up on cafeteria menus in the future.
Juniors Aleiyah McGee and Vikayla Oatis and seniors Bethanie Pheal and Donovan Reid will travel to Kentucky in May to compete in the national USDA Jr. Chef Competition after winning the Savor the Flavor of Mississippi Jr. Chef event.
Mississippi’s event tasked teams to use locally sourced ingredients, and the Smokin’ Hot crew developed different components for the wrap—a creole spice blend for the chicken, a sauce featuring blueberries and peppers, and a Brussels sprouts and kale salad—that could be procured from area suppliers. Sanderson Farms, one of the nation’s biggest poultry providers, is headquartered in nearby Laurel; Sandy Run Farm, located 6 miles away from the school in Purvis, grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; and even honey for the sauce is available at Dixie Bee Honey Bee Farm near Hattiesburg.
The spinach wrap itself was the only non-locally sourced ingredient.
Team members were confident they had created a winning recipe heading into the competition, but it was their use of a secret weapon—a handheld smoke infuser—that really made their dish stand out from the competition.
“Every time we go into a competition, we look at all angles. We ask ourselves, ‘What are people going to remember us for?’ and ‘What can we do to make others look at what we’re doing?’” said OGHS culinary instructor Debbie Miller. “When you compete, you have to play to your strengths and use what’s going to set you apart.
“These students also set us apart,” she added.
90 Minutes to Win
From start to finish, Smokin’ Hot’s performance in the kitchen is an intricate and finely tuned act. The team only has 90 minutes to transform raw ingredients into a plated entrée for judges.
Each student knows his or her role, and each step of their choreographed culinary ballet is timed.
They spring into action the moment the clock starts ticking by sanitizing their workspace, opening bags and containers of ingredients, washing produce, and preheating ovens.
Pheal slices the chicken while Reid chops the vegetables; Oatis blends spices into a seasoning as McGee turns a mixture of blueberries, honey, and other ingredients into a sauce on the stove top.
Twenty minutes in, the chicken goes into the oven. After 50 minutes, the sauce comes off the stove and is strained. With 15 minutes left, team members begin assembling the wrap and preparing to combine and arrange the different elements for plating and presentation.
It’s a hectic scene at times, with teenagers wielding sharp knives and giving frank instructions all while keeping an eye on the clock, but it works—a plated chicken wrap and side of sweet potato fries, with their team’s name signed in ranch dressing, is ready for inspection.
“We work pretty well together as a team,” Oatis said.
Besides the usual cooking criteria—time and temperature, degree of sanitary conditions, cutlery skills, and presentation—students are also judged on their teamwork, communication, and knowledge of their product. Not only did Smokin’ Hot team members have to deliver a well-cooked, delicious dish to the judges, but they also had to explain the wrap and discuss its complimentary and contrasting flavors.
“We knew we had it,” McGee said of their chance to win the state title. “We had more complex flavors [in the entrée] than anybody else.”
Food and Skills for the Future
The true secret of Smokin’ Hot’s dish is it wasn’t the students’ first choice—it was an alternative to other experiments.
Not only did the team need to develop an award-winning meal for the competition, but the group was also tasked with making that dish easily replicable in school cafeterias.
Pheal said the students first experimented with homemade pasta and then chicken wings, all while trying to incorporate cauliflower as a prominent part of the dish. Those recipes were quickly abandoned because either the ingredients were not readily available to schools or the processes to create the food—the pasta, specifically—was simply too intensive for your average school cafeteria.
Team members then turned their attention to featuring sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
“We knew we had to come up with a way to package [the ingredients] so that students would eat it. That’s how the salad was developed,” Miller said. “Anyone can come up with a meal idea, but you have to factor in availability and students’ tastes. Those factors really narrow the list of what you can do.”
Even if none of the four students pursue a career as a chef, they all agreed OGHS culinary classes provided them specific cooking skills and general knowledge they’ll use throughout their lives. Reid is also able to transfer those skills directly to his part-time job at a local deli.
“Classes like these are great because you get to do something different and you learn things you’ll need for when you’re on your own,” he said.