By Elizabeth Perry
Students from Sto-Rox Jr./Sr High School faced off at the Steel Chef live cooking competition for the first time since the pandemic brought a halt to the event.
The student competitors showed off the culinary skills they learned during the 10-week instructional program taught by some of Pittsburgh’s top chefs at the Focus on Renewal headquarters in McKees Rocks.
The third annual, sold-out March 27 competition was judged by documentarian and Pittsburgh-area legend, Rick Sebak, blogger and restaurant reviewer Briana White and McKees Rocks native Chef Mark Snyder, who also acted as a mentor prior to the event.
“(I) was delighted to get an invitation,” Sebak said.
Students picked up skills on how to handle food safely, were introduced to new spices and were instructed by mentor chefs.
“It’s no cost to these students. We rely heavily on sponsors, grants and then the competition serves as a fundraiser for the next year,” said Jenifer Davison, project manager for the Steel Chef program.
Davison said the classes were driven by a curriculum she’d created, starting off with things like knife safety and learning how to deal with a pan of oil.
Winners of the competition received more than culinary tools and a golden whisk hand-painted by Davison. They also had the opportunity to pick up real-world skills and network with chefs who are already succeeding in the food industry.
“Most of them went to college or into the culinary arts,” Davison said.
Snyder, who is faculty at Phipps Conservatory, taught a class for the students during the course.
“I can’t believe the improvement in 10 weeks,” Snyder said.
Judge Sebak went to the kitchen to meet each chef individually early in the process.
“He’s just the nicest man, I just reached out to him,” Davison said, adding she “just basically cold-called him,” to participate in the event.
The student chefs were divided into two teams: Red and Blue.
The Red Team was composed of Celena Mazza, grade 7, Elek Pehm, grade 12, and Tenaijah Marburry, grade 11. Chef Zach Mitcham provided leadership and encouragement to the Red Team. He’s been a chef for 12 years and said his mentor taught him, “food is love, and love should be shared.” The team was aided in food prep by Chef Kay Stewart, operator of House of Soul Catering.
On the Blue Team were Sixth-grader Jada Rixy, Junior Catalena Mazza and Eighth-grader Arrow Starr. Chef Natalie DeiCas, owner of restaurants Everyday’s a Sunday in Pittsburgh and Everyday’s Eats in Philadelphia worked with the Blue Team. They were helped by Chef Andy Allen, manager and sous chef at Driftwood Oven.
DeiCas, also a ServSafe instructor proctor, was also able to impart these skills to the young chefs throughout the program.
Dishes were judged on the taste, specifically how successfully they balanced salt, fat, acid and heat; teamwork and coaching; knife cuts; the ingenuity of the recipe and original plating.
Both teams made lamb dishes, with the Red Team edging out the Blue for victory with their spicy vindaloo over the traditional lamb shank.
Chef Donato Collucio with the Joinery Hotel Group, Chef Jason Taylor from Pita My Shawarma, Chef Neil Blazen also of Driftwood Oven, and Chef Keyla Cook from Casa Brasil also served as mentors for the students who took part.
“It’s really a fantastic program, and I feel proud of these students,” Davison said.
Davison and FOR started the Steel City program in 2017 after Davison noticed that kids who would come in for the after-school arts program arrived hungry, tired and grumpy.
She looked for a way to feed them and got meals donated from the Environmental Charter School. At times, Davison would repurpose the meals into something the kids found more palatable.
“I found that if we created a meal and ate together all the tension between the students went away. The kids really blossomed, really changed their outlook by eating family style,” Davison said.
Melissa Metropolis contributed to this story.