Junior Chef Competition Officiant

Junior Chef Competition offers career skills, life lessons for youth

Author: Matt Debnam

Sizzling sounds and delightful smells filled the air at Cumberland Juvenile Detention Center on Jan. 20, as the facility hosted its inaugural Junior Chef Competition finale. Pitting two juvenile chefs in a three-round, head-to-head competition, the event was the culmination of a months-long Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention pilot program designed to teach culinary skills and life lessons. 

On opposite sides of the room, with a common table of ingredients between them, the teen chefs worked diligently to create a three-course meal for a panel of judges. A pair of facility staff members, meanwhile, served as sous chefs, assisting every step of the way, as JJDP food service supervisors from across the state watched from the audience.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for these young people, and we’re excited to be the first detention center to try this out,” said Cumberland JDC Food Service Supervisor and event host Tena Sonko. “If this program works here, it will be passed on to all the other facilities so they can do it.”

JJDP Nutrition Services Director Lynne Williams, along with School Nutrition Administrative Officers Carolyn Cash and Maria Jones, served as judges for the competition, sampling and grading each dish based on taste, presentation and sanitation.

“I am thrilled that Ms. Sonko was able to do this,” Williams said. “I think the juveniles enjoy it. Anything that they can continuously be involved in helps with the atmosphere and morale in our facilities.” 

The benefits of the Junior Chef program are threefold. At the most basic level, for many juveniles at the facility, the program has given them their first-ever cooking experience, offering a valuable life skill that will serve them well when they return to their communities.

According to Sonko, these lessons in the kitchen also transfer to academic skills in the classroom. Through this practical activity, students are learning about the math that goes into measurements, the science behind food preparation and the social skills necessary to bring a project to completion. 

Students involved in the program can also obtain their ServSafe® certification, an industry standard credential that will give them a leg up should they choose to pursue a career in culinary arts. At facilities across the division, most JJDP food service supervisors are certified to teach these courses.

“This is part of the curriculum that we offer our juveniles so that when they are released, they can become more employable,” Jones explained. “It’s about knowing times and temperatures, where to store food, what temperature to cook it up to, how to serve it – all these key components go into how they interact with food when it comes to preparation.” 

As with all the dishes the youth prepared that day, the ingredients and hard work that went into the Junior Chef Competition added up something truly special – an opportunity for JJDP School Nutrition staff to pass along their skills and passion for food to a new generation.  

“I’m excited to give them something positive,” Sonko said. “They’ll be able to take these skills back to their families and say, ‘this is something I learned in detention, can we do this at home?’”

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