Sacramento's top chefs compete for kids' vote in veggie of the year competition

09/05/2013 12:00 AM

09/05/2013 6:20 AM

First there were 10. Then there were five. In the end, only one would be left.

One winner, that is, of the contest for Veggie of the Year, to be unveiled Saturday at the Midtown Farmers Market Food Literacy Fair.

The judges were a pretty unforgiving bunch: 120 students from kindergarten through fifth grade did the taste-testing Wednesday at the Capitol Heights Academy. If they knew the winner, they kept the scoop to themselves.

California Food Literacy Center organizers were tougher still. None would reveal even a hint of which vegetable was pulling ahead in this second round of a fierce taste-testing competition.

Was it kale, tomato, beets? Sweet potato or avocado?

"You'll have to wait to find out," Amber Stott, founder of the California Food Literacy Center, said sternly with a wink. "It's going to be awesome."

The kids were clearly on Stott's side, giddy that she and her compatriots were back for a second year to teach food literacy at their school. At Capitol Heights, on the edge of Oak Park, the majority of the students come from economically disadvantaged households, and many were just getting acquainted with fresh produce.

Top chefs from Sacramento assisted in presenting the vegetables – each manning an individual station in the school's cafeteria and not-so-subtly urging the tasters to favor some particular veggie.

Presentation was everything. At the avocado station, Bret Bohlmann of Boulevard Bistro offered toothpicks adorned with a slice of green onion and a leaf of cilantro and topped by a cube of avocado. For those who did not care for the aftertaste, a wedge of orange was offered to clear the palate.

"Yuck, nasty," said Lashay Branch, an 8-year-old third-grader. She then inexplicably – but age-appropriately – declared, "I'm going to ask my mommy to make avocado ice cream."

Chef Paul Poore of Broderick Restaurant and Bar tended to the tomato station, showing off red, yellow and green fruits, some of them deformed enough to inspire a smattering of youthfully grotesque comparisons. Poore's cause was on the upswing, however, when he explained tomatoes as ingredients. He had them at "ketchup."

Still, third-grader Arianna Johnson-Sierra was wary. Very tentatively, she took a section of tomato in her mouth and rolled it around slowly. When sufficiently accustomed to the taste, she chewed and swallowed: a victory for Chef Paul, as the kids called him.

Surprise ruled the day at the kale station, where Kurt Spataro of the Paragary Restaurant Group had ever-so-lightly sweetened the textured leafy veggie with a vinagrette. The judges lifted small handfuls of the curly greens high, dropping bunches into their open mouths as if they were baby birds.

"Oh my goodness, we might actually run out of kale," said an astonished Peg Tomlinson-Poswall, chair of the literacy center's board. The day was young, so she lifted the bowl beyond the reach of the kids, some of whom ended up with souvenirs of kale's unlikely spurt of popularity on their clothes.

"The fact that they are eating kale on our first day back is significant," said Stott. "It's a sign that we're reaching them."

Randall Selland of the Selland Group of Restaurants – including the elegant Ella – did his best to persuade the kids of the virtues of beets. He won some over, as evidenced by reddish-purple stained fingers and lips.

Selland, wearing veggie-patterned pants, shrugged fatalistically: "You either really like beets or you really don't like them."

Stott, who addressed the rambunctious young judges in only the most positive of terms, explained the importance of teaching food literacy to the grade-school kids.

"We have this culture in America where we make anything good for us seem scary," she said. "But the more exciting we make learning about healthy foods, the more they trust us. It's less scary."

Or, as 7-year-old Nehemiah Wourku, a second-grader wiser than his years, said, food literacy is about "being smart with your food."

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