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Top Chef Season 7 Enters the School Lunch Battle

Top Chef D.C.

Top Chef D.C. entered parent territory last night when contestants were asked to cook a school lunch  — in an actual school, for actual school kids. The challenge was pegged to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, which aims to solve the childhood obesity epidemic. It’s a cause that’s caught the interest of a number of the nation’s top toques (including Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson), and it was a thrill to see the Top Chef  Season 7 take on it.

The catch for Top Chef‘s contestants? They were ordered to cook healthy four course cafeteria lunches (main, startch/grain, veg, dessert) on a public school budget: $2.60 per student. Egad! Judge Tom Colicchio revealed that this was an elimination challenge close to his heart: “My mom ran a school lunch program for 20 years,” he said. Plus, Tom’s a dad himself.

He’s not the only Top Chef-er who had a vested interest in this challenge. The others with an interest, plus the winning and losing plates, below.

I’d expected to see a lot of contestant Andrea this episode, since she’s a mother of three. I was disappointed — she flew largely under the radar. Her team, which made grilled apple-cider BBQ chicken, cole slaw with yogurt, whole-wheat-crusted mac and cheese, and melon with whipped yogurt, came in second. Let’s hope we hear more about her life as a mom, and her theories on cooking for kids, in future episodes. Truly, is there any harder audience to please?

Another contestant, Tracey, also had a reason to work extra hard this week. “I have a kid at home. I have been raising my girlfriend’s daughter for three and a half years,” she said, and even admitted that they ate fast food once a week — a habit she’d like to stop. “Kids are so important to me now that I have one in my life.” Alas, Tracey’s team came in in the bottom two. Their plate included a chicken burger, peanut butter and celery, sweet potato puree with cinnamon, and apple bread pudding. Lots of starch, not enough veggie. 

Peanut butter in a school lunch? It was possibly the biggest lapse in judgment in Top Chef history. I sincerely hope that the school nurse was on duty. 

Who won the challenge? Kelly took top-top honors with her main course of pork tacos on homemade oat tortillas. The sides, put together by Lynne, Tiffany, and Arnold, were equally impressive:  a black bean cake, roasted corn and tomato salad, and a carmalized sweet potato and sherbert dessert. It was a stunning plate of food that I’d eat off actual china, not just a lunch tray. 
(Who lost? That was Jaqueline, who made a too sweet, too starchy banana pudding)

The real winners, though, were the schoolkids. “Imagine if we had this every day for lunch,” one said. Replied his friend, “That’d be cool.” 

Indeed.

You can learn more about Michelle Obama’s program at http://www.letsmove.gov/

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