Cook-off Reveals Soy's Versatility

By Bethany Baratta

Taste Buds, a partnership between a community college and high school, inspires confidence, culinary creativity and passion for cooking.

Christian Malli’s eyes light up as his Taste Buds team is introduced. Donning a chef’s hat and chef’s coat etched with his name, his fists pump in the air as he bounces into the Quad Cities Waterfront Convention Center ballroom and takes his place behind a table adorned with desserts.

Malli, who has been involved in Taste Bud for three years, and his team have prepared a variety of treats for attendees of the Iowa ProStart cooking competition to enjoy while students prepare their dishes for the competition. 

Chef Robert Lewis, chef instructor at Scott Community College, started the partnership in 2019 between the culinary program at Scott Community College and the special education program at Pleasant Valley High School.

“We’re located just down the road from the high school, and I thought this would be a great way for these two classrooms to work together and learn from each other,” he says.

The peer-to-peer learning adds another element to program participants’ involvement, says Melissa Dockery, Transitional Alliance Program coordinator for Pleasant Valley Schools.

“Taste Buds has been really amazing for our students,” Dockery says. “It adds inclusion and excitement. They’re so excited to go to Scott Community College and work with the college students and chefs. They talk about it days before and come back and tell all their friends about what they made.”

Inspiring Confidence

Students in Gina Meadows’ special education classroom are thrilled to participate.

“It has really inspired our students and given them more confidence in the kitchen,” Meadows says.

Meadows already has transformed traditional consumer sciences curriculum for her students. They operate PV Bistro to help students learn about what it takes to develop a menu and serve customers.

Students, including Malli, plan recipes and shopping lists. Then, they visit the local grocery store to pick out and buy the ingredients. The work begins back in the class’s kitchen preparing food for their customers, which are the high school teachers.

Malli beamed as he showed his parents, Heather and Dan, the monster cookies prepared for the dessert salon, a special addition to the cooking competition.

“Christian is king of monster cookie making,” Chef Robert says. “He is the undisputed monster cookie champ.”

Malli says his favorite part of making the monster cookies is folding in the M&Ms. With his Taste Buds team, he works alongside his peers and learns from Chef Robert, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. By learning  various flavor profiles, Malli has gained a deep appreciation and love for ginger.

The experience translates at home, where he experiments in the kitchen with his parents. There, he makes brisket grilled cheese sandwiches with mom and chorizo and eggs with his dad. Meatballs have become a recent favorite.

Heather Crouch, mom to 17-year-old Gabby Dilico, says the program has expanded her daughter’s learning opportunities.

“Pleasant Valley has been amazing at supporting her with a lot of beyond-the-classroom experiences like this one, and it’s awesome,” says Crouch. “She’s more confident in the kitchen. She’s asking to cook things and asking how she can help me.”

Working with their peers, students their own age, is a bonus, the parents say.

When COVID-19 restricted in-person learning last year, the Taste Buds program pivoted. Recipes were sent electronically, and the class whipped up their creations from their home kitchens, sharing the virtual classroom time and finished products with their families.

Heather Malli says Christian is enjoying the face-to-face interaction once again.

“He just loves to cook,” she says. “I appreciate that Taste Buds gives him this vocational aspect – besides the school, he’s excited to go off-campus and into the college’s culinary kitchen.”

Competition Fosters Creativity

Desserts created by Taste Buds program participants and culinary students from Scott Community College were the cherry on top of the student cook-off and tofu beverage competition.

The SoyFoods Council was one of several sponsors of the event, which benefited the Iowa Restaurant Association Education Foundation in training Iowa’s restaurant and hospitality industry workforce, particularly the Iowa ProStart program. ProStart is a high school culinary curriculum, providing classroom resources, student mentoring activities, internships and opportunities to foster professional development in the culinary and hospitality industries.

This year’s event included a special element to the cook-off: a tofu beverage competition. The four teams from Davenport and Burlington high schools used Morinaga’s new Mori-Nu Plus Fortified tofu product as an ingredient in their innovative, tasty beverages.

Izzy Critten and her team blended the Mori-Nu tofu with other ingredients to create a chocolate hazelnut vanilla coffee tofu drink. Decorated with a homemade whipped cream and garnished with chocolate sauce and cinnamon, the Davenport team’s drink was a twist from others in the competition, which chose sweeter, fruitier ingredients.

“I’ve made fried tofu, but I haven’t used it in a drink; I didn’t realize that was a thing,” said Critten, a senior from Davenport. “After I delved into it, I realized there’s a whole lot of recipes online.”

Next, aspiring chefs were required to use one soy ingredient in their entrée or appetizer. A stocked pantry included various soy products, including Mori-Nu silken tofu, tempeh and edamame.

Critten’s team, which won the competition and the $600 prize, made a Korean-inspired soup with vegetables (red cabbage, red peppers, onions, carrots and spinach) blended with curry powder and coconut milk with basil pesto and shallots as a garnish.

Tofu was the main ingredient in their winning entrée. The team made a honey garlic fried tofu served over a bed of stir-fried rice with a shrimp and green onion garnish. A final dash of sriracha sauce gave the dish a hot, tangy and sweet flair.

Using soy as an element in the competition wasn’t outside of Critten’s comfort zone, she says. She cooks regularly for her family, and her sister is vegetarian. Therefore, soyfoods are somewhat of a staple in her cuisine. The competition, however, showed her she could do more with soy.

“I definitely think I’ll make this honey garlic fried tofu recipe for my sister,” she says. She noted the tofu’s firm texture and ability to take on various flavors.

“I marinated it with chicken broth; the recipe originally said to marinade with water, but I thought chicken broth would make it taste more like a meat alternative,” she says.

The cook-off competition delivered on the objectives for the event, to raise money for supporting and training future chefs and creating opportunities for students to learn about cooking with soy.

“When kids are introduced to those food products at a younger age and get a chance to work with them, they’re going to be more apt to use the foods when they get out into the professional industry,” says May Shaben, Iowa ProStart Coordinator and executive director of the Iowa Restaurant Association Educations Foundation.

The tofu beverage competition and the ProStart culinary student cook-off demonstrated the versatility of soy, says Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council.

“It’s good for these students to think about soy, especially if they continue on with a career in culinary arts,” Funk says.

“It’s important that their creativity of menus also includes soy, whether it’s for mainstream consumers or vegetarians,” Funk says.

Soy ranks as one of the best plant protein options because of its complete protein package, Funk says.

“I don’t tell consumers how to eat,” Funk says. “But if they’re choosing plant protein, I want them to choose the best, and that’s soy.”