Behind the Scenes with Winning Culinary Cats Team

From left: Gracie Inabnitt, Jessica Harley, Christina Montgomery, Mary Grace Bamberger, Abby Coyle. Not present, Alley Hayes.

From left: Gracie Inabnitt, Jessica Harley, Christina Montgomery, Mary Grace Bamberger, Abby Coyle. Not present, Ally Hayes.

This past week, a team of Anderson County High School students went to the Kentucky State Fair to compete and win in the third annual Junior Chef tournament.  We went behind the scenes to talk with the coach and students who won the competition and see just how hard it was to win it.

The team, comprised of two seniors and three juniors, was coached by culinary teacher Jessica Harley and called themselves the “Culinary Cats.”  Jessica said, amazingly, that this was the first time ACHS competed in the competition making their win even more special.  It took considerable effort on the team to win it, taking them at least 20-30 hours of prep and competition time.

They started their great journey back in February, coming up with the recipe that would eventually win them the top spot.  Their requirements included that the meal would be suitable to be served in school, and they had to use at least 5 Kentucky Proud products.  Putting together a tasty mix of turkey breast and bacon, penne pasta, vegetables, cheese sauce, and a bread crumb topping along with including a whopping 14 Kentucky Proud items, the team perfected their baked hot brown penne and the roles each team member would take.

Christina Montgomery sliced, sautéed, plated the food and served as team captain; Mary Grace Bamberger also helped slice, boiled the pasta, and fried the bacon; Gracie Inabnitt cut and sauteed the turkey, did the final mixing, and also helped plate; Abby Coyle also helped slice and mix; and Ally Hays worked on creating the sauce.  The girls said that Ally’s job was probably one of the hardest roles and the judges complimented her on the sauce she created.

After going through the first round of regional competitions in April, the Culinary Cats would continue to win, making their way closer to one of the coveted 16 slots at the state level.  Soon enough, they made the cut and then had to wait until this year’s state fair to start the competition again.  Going through their first state level round by a default win, when the other team backed out, helped them to gauge the situation for the upcoming rounds.

Their next competition was tough.  Going against Montgomery County, some of the Culinary Cats thought they might be done.  Montgomery’s stuffed meatballs were impressive to the Cats, and they weren’t sure if they’d get past this round.  But the judges were on the Cats’ side, and they moved forward, beating Montgomery County.  Apollo High School fell next, before the grand championship against Pikeville.

The championship was held a little differently than the previous heats.  This time, there were five judges instead of three.  Two judges were USDA agents from Washington DC, two were professional chefs, and one was a Food Network star.  The Cats worked their magic against Pikeville’s Layered Taco Bowl and impressed the judges to win the competition.

For winning, the team received a number of prizes.  Each team member received a $6,000 scholarship from Sullivan University and a copy of “The Visual Food Lover’s Guide.”  The team as a whole also received a knife set and $600.  Christina Montgomery was named Top Chef of the tournament and won an additional $2000 scholarship.  The team will also be featured in an episode of Kentucky Proud Kitchen and will be cooking their winning recipe for the entire high school in mid September.

Even though they just won, coach Jessica Harley is already planning for next year.  Losing two members of the team when they graduate at the end of this school year, Jessica will be reforming a new team with three veteran members next year.  With experience and expertise, we might just see another win for Anderson County next year.

If you’re looking to make what the Culinary Cats cooked up for the win, we got the recipe below:


Region 8: Anderson County High School “Culinary Cats”

6 cups skim milk *
1 cup shredded parmesan *
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese *
1 Tbsp garlic salt
1 Tbsp oregano *
1 cup butter
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat butter over medium heat. Add flour all at once, whisking vigorously. Once mixture thins and starts to bubble, reduce heat to low and add skim milk. Once sauce starts to thicken, whisk in parmesan cheese and shredded Swiss cheese. Once sauce coats the back of the spoon, add the oregano and garlic salt. Stir well and salt and pepper to taste.
Baked Penne

16 oz turkey breast, cut into strips *
16 oz whole wheat penne pasta
1 cup spinach, chopped *
1 cup yellow squash, chopped *
1/2 cup red bell peppers, julienne *
4 roma tomatoes, sliced *
8 slices turkey bacon, cooked *
1/4 cup and 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped *
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring a stock pot of water to a boil and add the penne. Cook until al dente. Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in skillet to sauté the turkey breast strips until golden and cooked throughout. While cooking turkey breast strips, in a small skillet sauté the onions, 2 minced garlic cloves, peppers, and squash in 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove vegetables and turkey breast from heat and set aside.

3 cups Panko bread crumbs
3/4 cup grated parmesan *
1 cup spinach, chopped
1/2 Tbsp parsley *
2 Tbsp parsley (garnish) *
Preheat oven to 350° F. In medium bowl, mix bread crumbs, grated parmesan, and parsley and set aside. Once pasta is al dente and drained, mix pasta, sauce, vegetables, and turkey breasts in a large skillet on medium heat. Add spinach to mixture and heat until spinach is slightly wilted. Portion the mixture into baking dish and cover with topping mixture. Top that with 4 sliced roma tomatoes and 8 slices of cooked turkey bacon. Bake at 350° F for 20 minutes or until golden.

Note: * denotes Kentucky Proud ingredients; every recipe entered in the competition must contain at least five local ingredients, meet NSLP guidelines, and must be relatively easy for school food service staff to replicate.

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Posted in Food & Drink, School & Education.

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