July 20, 2010

If visitors to the Lexington Lions Club Bluegrass Fair came away thinking chefs are getting younger and younger, they wouldn't be far off the mark. Fayette County 4-H'ers took the stage at the fair to demonstrate not only their cooking skills, but their public speaking skills as well.

The rise in interest in local food and the popularity of television networks like The Food Network are spawning a whole new generation of chefs-some of whom are still in grade school and middle school. Jennifer Boykin, Fayette County 4H Youth development extension agent, built on that interest with 4-H Food Stars, a University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension program.

Since March, 10 4-H'ers, ages 9 through 13, have gathered monthly at the Fayette County extension office to hone their proficiency in cooking and communicating--two important life skills, according to Boykin.

"They've learned the parts of a speech and how to give a demonstration," she said. "And since they'd all taken prior cooking classes through 4-H, we wanted to put a different spin on this one."

Even if Rachel Ray and Paula Deen make it seem effortless, the 4-H'ers discovered that cooking and talking to an audience simultaneously can be a lot harder than it looks. During their last official class together, teams had to prepare a recipe while describing their actions to an audience made up of their fellow 4-H'ers and two judges, 4H Youth development agent Eric Comley and Ramona Copher, a 4H Youth development assistant. 

"They've been learning about different demonstration techniques," Boykin said. "We actually had Brigitte Nguyen come and do a few demonstrations for them."

Nguyen is a local celebrity who has appeared on WLEX-TV and The Food Network.

"She talked to them about watching cooking shows like Rachel Ray," she said. "And she talked to them about speaking while you're cooking and choosing simple recipes that were easy to do."

Aside from communications and cooking skills, Boykin emphasized nutrition. She divided the group into three teams-meat and beans, fruits and vegetables, and grains-as a way of teaching them about the different food groups.

"There's a lot of different things that you learn," said Ashley Hardee, a member of the fruits and vegetables team. "It's more than cooking. It's about washing your hands and nutrition, too."

Hardee's team, which included Selena Locke and Alex Warren, prepared a fruit smoothie for the final night's competition. The meat and beans group, made up of two sets of brothers, Indiana and Scout Anders and Paxton and Hayes Powell, prepared spaghetti tacos for their demonstration. Brianna Scott, Liam McConnell and Shaylee Carter made whole-wheat pancakes to showcase grains.

The teams buzzed around the extension office's kitchen, putting finishing touches on their dishes before their demonstrations.

"This is freak-out mode right now," Boykin said.  Then she had one last piece of advice for them.

"Put your game face on."

Like many things in life, timing is everything. While his teammates prepared their fruit smoothie, Alex plunged into a story about a blender accident, but his punch line was drowned out-by what else, a whirring blender.

Or maybe they timed it perfectly after all. It got a good laugh from their audience. When all was said and done, the fruits and vegetables group won the prize-chef's hats, which Boykin said would be embroidered with their names.

A few days later, Alex, Ashley, Liam and Selena represented the entire group at the fair, where they handed out smoothie samples and recipes to interested onlookers.

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