Quail Hollow Elementary (QHE) students Gracie Evans, Madison Gulley, Katelyn O’Neil and Lindsey Overland will be competing in a “Gridiron Challenge” on Saturday, May 19, at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ training facility at One Buc Place.
But, don’t expect the 10- and 11-year-old fifth-graders to be knocking anyone down with ferocious hits.
Instead, they will be trying to knock some people out with their Alfredo Smothered Roasted Red Pepper & Sun Dried Tomato Pasta Swirls.
The Wesley Chapel girls will take part in a culinary competition against students from three other schools in the annual Gridiron Cooking Challenge, part of the “Fuel Up to Play 60” initiative, an in-school nutrition and physical activity program run by the National Dairy Council and the NFL.
The event is free and open to the public to attend. And, while it’s still a few weeks away at our press time, the girls say they are already getting nervous.
“I think about it a lot. I’m very excited,” Katelyn says, with her teammates nodding in agreement.
At the competition, the Quail Hollow quartet will have an hour to prepare their signature dish for a panel of judges, including a Florida dairy farmer, the Bucs’ executive chef, a representative from Publix and teenage culinary whiz Zac Kara, a former MasterChef Junior competitor on FOX-TV.
The QHE team has its own culinary whiz and former television competitor in Gracie. In 2016, when she was just 9-years-old, she battled against nine other kid cooks from across the country on Food Network’s “Star Kids” cooking show.
On that show, Gracie had to present a live audition to judges, prepare dishes on the fly and incorporate social media — such as a Snapchat cooking tip — into her cooking presentation. She still maintains a popular Instagram page, where she posts her most current dishes.
It’s a skill set she picked up from her mother, Juliana, a well-known dessert maker who has appeared on NBC-TV’s “The Today Show,” as well as the Food Network and local TV. She describes herself as a “freelance food stylist,” and her daughter is following in her footsteps.
It was while both were giving demonstrations at the Southern Women’s Fair last October that Gracie was introduced to the Florida Dairy Council, which suggested she take part in the council’s upcoming competition.
The idea of a team competition appealed to Gracie, as opposed to the kid-to-kid cooking combat she went through at Food Network. She decided to team up with Madison, Katelyn and Lindsey, with fifth-grade teacher Alysha Moscarelli and Juliana helping to guide the girls.
“It will definitely be better than my first time,” Gracie says. “You will be able to rely on other people. It helps you relax more. You won’t be as nervous.”
The Power Of Teamwork
In fact, each girl has her own role to play on the team, forming a finely-tuned unit.
Gracie started brainstorming immediately after finding out about the competition. She pitched the Council with one of the recipes she served on the Food Network, modifying it by replacing the recipe’s marinara sauce with Alfredo sauce, as the competition calls for dairy-based recipes.
One of those components, which provides a secondary dash of dairy, could be called the “secret sauce” — yogurt.
“It made it a little creamier, and yogurt has that tart kind of a bite,” Juliana says. “It plays very nicely.”
Katelyn also helps with the Alfredo sauce. “We put a lot of work into it and practice and tasting, making sure it’s real smooth,’’ she says. “And, we have a lot of back-up plans, in case it’s not perfect.”
Lindsey’s job is the lemon ricotta filling, which she says she makes with ricotta cheese (still more dairy), zested lemon, salt and black pepper.
“We mix it all up and put it (on the noodles) and roll it all up,” she says.
Madison is responsible for the roasted pepper sun-dried tomato, which is blended with pesto, baby spinach, parsley and olive oil before being incorporated into the lasagna noodles.
“It’s very delicious,” says Madison, who is dubbed the “Pesto Queen” by her teacher.
Lindsey and Madison both say that since joining the Gridiron Challenge team, they have taken a greater interest in cooking and now make more dishes around their homes.
“I really enjoy doing the cooking,” Lindsey says. “But, I think it all started with this competition.”
The team has been practicing for three months now, sometimes at home, other times at school, where they push three desks together and set up their stations.
Moscarelli, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) teacher who has all four girls in two separate math and science classes at Quail Hollow, says she has enjoyed watching them work together in preparation for the upcoming competition, not to mention all the taste-testing she has been able to indulge in.
“It’s nice to see them use their critical thinking skills, communication skills and teamwork in everyday life,” she says. “And, the recipe is delicious.”
The girls are all friends and have each brought their own special talents to the cooking table — with a mix of brainstorming and experimentation.
“They started to talk about it at lunch,” Moscarelli says, “and they would say, ‘Ooh, what if we added this to the recipe?,’ and then would go home and try different things and alter the ingredients. They all jumped right in.”
The recipe is finalized, and the team is now working on the little things, like plating and timing. They will have to plate and present four dishes for the judges, and also are responsible for producing 50 samples for the audience.
The girls are confident they will do well and deliver a hit at the Gridiron Challenge. The delicious kind.
“We have been working hard,” Madison said. “It will be good.”