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11 May 2011
A "Cooking Challenge" party!
Sophie as Iron Chef|sophie-world.com

Okay all you young culinary wannabes! Time to grab your aprons and your spatulas: the battle of the twelve-year-old chefs has begun!

In my years as a party planner, I think I’ve done about half a dozen “Iron Chef” and “Chopped”-inspired parties, and I have to tell you, they are so much fun! Messy, but fun! The main thing that always amazes me is how sophisticated the young guests’ palates are. There has never been a failure on one of my “cooking challenge” parties. The kids always finish on time, they always use all their ingredients, they always work well together as a team, and the food is, for the most part, really tasty and inspired. And I’m not talking about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here -- I’m talking full-out, three course meals with completely conceived table settings and plating...

I don’t know why -- maybe kids are just more sophisticated today, or perhaps the influence of the Food Network has something to do with it, or maybe it’s because we just live in a “foodie” state like California -- but our kids are really kitchen-savvy!

This is such a fun exercise that goes beyond birthday parties. It could work for scouting troops (it would be a blast to do this with campfire cooking!), church groups (I remember my childhood church having a big old-fashioned stove and plenty of counter space), or even for a fun family challenge (maybe give each family member a different part of the meal to make). You will, however, definitely need a good-sized kitchen and lots of counter space.

Here in the Bay Area, we are blessed with an amazing kitchen showroom called Dacor. They have a wonderful “test kitchen” that they rent out at a very reasonable rate. The great thing about Dacor is that they have everything there: two refrigerators, three stoves, tons of pots and pans, and lots of working space.

To get our guests excited about the party, the invitations were hand-delivered. Each was a really cute, colorful whisk purchased at IKEA. A “recipe card” invitation was attached to each whisk, and it read something like this...

RECIPE FOR AN AWESOME PARTY
Prep time/cooking time - 2 hours - 2:30 - 4:30 p.m.

Ingredients
1 totally excited birthday girl (our birthday girl’s name went here)
1 awesome party theme (Cook-off Competition)
1 really cool party location (Dacor - with address)
14 amazing friends

Directions
Place 1 birthday girl with 13 friends in party location
Divide into 3 teams
Add a basket of secret ingredients, and watch what unfolds!

To reserve your apron and place at the counter - RSVP by (date) to (our birthday girl’s mom’s name here)



The excitement around this party was intense! Everyone said yes right away -- even though there were some scheduling issues with volleyball and soccer -- and everyone made it. No one wanted to miss the great cook-off!

Now, the way I do our cooking challenge parties is different than the TV shows. It’s actually more of a combination of some of the most popular shows, like “Iron Chef” and “Chopped.” Each team is given a bag of supplies. In this latest case, it was 12 items, since the birthday girl was turning 12. Each team had to use at least 11 of the ingredients (they were allowed to set one aside, since I believe that you don’t really turn your age until someone actually sings you “Happy Birthday!”), and they needed to create an appetizer, main course, side dish, and dessert. (In this case we actually had a cupcake station set up with pre-made cupcakes, icings, and a variety of candy toppings.) The guests were broken into three teams, and assigned an adult team leader (my staff -- who were surprisingly competitive, I must say!). The adults were only there to help guide the kids, do things like the chopping, and make sure that everyone stayed safe in the kitchen. The team leaders were not allowed to come up with the recipes or steer the group in one direction or another (unless of course the team was stumped by something!).

The teams were given a few safety rules:

  1. Never run in the kitchen
  2. Never leave a stove unattended
  3. Never try to move a boiling pot without adult help
  4. Handle knives with extreme caution (better yet, have an adult chop)
  5. Always maintain calm in the kitchen, ask for help if needed
  6. Always use an oven mitt with something hot




Then I handed out their bags of supplies. In this case, the bags contained the following:

  1. 1 pound of ground beef
  2. 1 package of Pillsbury crescent rolls
  3. 1 package of chopped onions
  4. 1 packet of white pepper
  5. 1 can of chopped tomatoes
  6. 1 package of frozen peas
  7. 1 pound of shredded cheese
  8. 1 apple
  9. 1 pound of potatoes
  10. lettuce
  11. 1 egg
  12. 1 vegetable bullion cube




I gave the guests fifteen minutes to plan their menus and figure out who was going to prepare what. Truth be told, they only needed about twelve -- these kids were fast! After that, the time was reset for one hour, and they were off!

A view of the pantry at our cooking party|sophie-world.com

A view of our cupcake decorating supplies from sophie's world



In addition to the bag of challenge items, I also supplied a pantry full of ingredients that all the guests could use; it included oils, spices, assorted pastas, rice, vegetables (like peppers, carrots, squash, zucchini, broccoli, celery, tomatoes, and jalapeno peppers), milk, cream, butter, eggs, lemons and limes, crackers, bread, tortillas, breadcrumbs, peanut butter, jelly, syrup, soy sauce, miso... pretty much everything I could steal from my own shelves at home!

During the preparation, the judges (who consisted of the father, the grandmother, and the next door neighbor) wandered around, asking questions and checking on each group’s progress. The teams were ultimately judged on the following criteria, with each item being worth a maximum of 20 points...

Teamwork was judged on a scale from 1 to 20 (which all of the teams aced, by the way)

Appetizer, main dish, side dish:
Taste - 10 points
Originality - 5 points
Presentation - 5 points

Cupcakes:
Design - 10 points
Originality - 10 points



I have to say that I was amazed at how quickly the kids pulled everything together. Most of the teams were set and plated before the hour was actually up... Although there was a mad scramble at the one minute countdown, when one of the girls realized that the judges didn’t have anything to drink! This caused a ripple effect throughout the teams, with each one literally sprinting to grab glassware (so much for the rule about running in the kitchen)!

The judges took their time critiquing each and every team’s work. Once they were finished sampling their wares, the remainders were split amongst all of the guests, so that everyone was given the opportunity to sample each other’s handiwork.

Meals created by the chefs at the cooking party at sophie's world



In the end, it really didn’t matter who won. Everyone did such an amazing job that the scores were within a few points of each other. The main thing was that everyone worked so well together and actually created amazing dishes.

Watch out Bobby Flay - these birthday guests might be ready for a throw down!