Adding their own flavor: Harding trio gets once-in-a-lifetime chance to display culinary chops in D.C.

As Kaylyn Vang prepared to convince a panel of celebrity judges that she and her teammates had created the most flavorful, healthy meal during a national cook-off, time seemed to have stopped.

It was “the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Vang, 17, an incoming senior at St. Paul Harding High School. “It felt like the longest five minutes ever.”

Vang was one of three students from Harding who won a regional chef competition earlier this year as a part of the Healthy Schools Campaign’s Cooking up Change initiative. The team advanced to the national finals on June 6 in Washington, D.C., where they prepared and presented their meals in front of a panel of celebrity chef judges—including Daniel Giusti and Kwame Onwauchi—as well as nutrition experts and national leaders.

Kaylyn Vang, Xia Vang, and Chinue Yang Photo courtesy of St. Paul Public Schools
From left, Kaylyn Vang, Xia Vang, and Chinue Yang Photo courtesy of St. Paul Public Schools

The Cooking up Change program challenges culinary students across the country to create tasty meals that follow national nutrition standards— for about $1 per meal. Students learn to work as a team, think critically and hone communication skills that prepare them for success, whether in the kitchen or not.

Vang and her teammates, Xia Vang and Chinue Yang, created the winning dish in St. Paul, one of 10 regional contests. Inspired by their Southeast Asian heritage, they produced Thai peanut chicken lettuce wraps, cucumber salad and pineapple crisp.

Their first-place regional finish also gave them another perk: the dish was lunch for St. Paul Public Schools students in May. This meant up to 40,000 students could try their work.

“I was excited and I really wanted to see how my peers thought of the dishes,” Vang said. “And we got a lot of good feedback from the teachers.”

Teachers described it as a vibrant, refreshing and presentable meal, Vang said.

As with any chef, Vang expected some criticism. One of Vang’s friends thought the dish lacked flavor. Vang said that was understandable, because she’s aware of the difference between serving a small group compared to thousands of students.

“I think that helped me, because I realized that negative feedback doesn’t stop me from pursuing certain things that I want to cook,” Vang said. “But I’m a person that really likes to experiment with food, and so I’m not afraid to try new things, and to get that feedback.”

One of the team’s biggest cheerleaders is Allison Zaccardi, a Harding family and consumer science teacher.

Allison Zaccardi, a family and consumer science teacher
Allison Zaccardi, a family and consumer science teacher at Harding Photo courtesy of Christina Garner

“I think they’re amazing,” Zaccardi said. “They’re so motivated and creative and they do such a great job working together as a team. They each have their own unique skillset and they really allow each other to kind of push their own skills, while supporting the other people’s skills.”

Zaccardi says there should be more student input on what students eat.

“The issues around student health are so critical,” she said. “It’s so important that we feed our students healthy food, and that they get used to eating healthy food” for the rest of their lives.

In D.C., students also had the opportunity to visit city sites and serve their dishes to legislative leaders, as well as meet the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, John King.

A team from Orange County won the national competition with Moroccan stuffed zucchini, Moroccan salad and spiced pear cups. Teams from Chicago and Los Angeles took second and third, respectively.

Although Vang’s team didn’t win the national competition, the students learned the importance of eating healthy, the challenges of creating a recipe and the benefits of working in a team, she said.

And that will last longer than five minutes.