The age-old saying of "too many cooks spoil the soup" must not apply to lamb or children. At Thursday's Taste of Vail Lamb Cook-Off, 34 "chefs" from Little Chefs of Vail made a name for themselves in their first appearance at the popular event with a second place finish in the People's Choice contest.
Ranging in ages from 5 to 19, the little chefs spent days prepping for the big day in the kitchen of Cima at the Westin Riverfront. It would have been easy for Little Chefs creator and program director Shawn Sanders to think Friday the 13th had come early, but through all the day's trials and tribulations her smile and kind, patient demeanor never faded. And with the help of kind strangers and fellow chefs, her patience and optimism paid off with the Little Chefs winning over the crowd with their "Lamb with Mole Sauce en Papillote" creation.
Taking her inspiration from Jamie Oliver, Sanders cooked up the Little Chefs of Vail concept in 2010. What better way to blend her two passions - cooking and children - than to start a program such as this? The children participate in cooking classes of all kinds at venues throughout the valley. Sanders believes "if kids can be taught to ride a chairlift alone, without a seatbelt, and ski down a mountain at 30 miles per hour, they can be taught to safely use a flattop, grill and cheese graters."
She professes that cooking is "the sport they will play for the rest of their lives." Sanders attended the Culinary Institute of America, but her cooking experience began at home where, as the second oldest of nine kids, she stepped up to help cook the family meals after her mom suffered a stroke. She began her commercial experience at 16, and now works to give a similar experience to local and visiting children.
Through the Little Chefs program, the students are learning some of life's many lessons - both the good and the bad. How else could these budding gastronomes have the opportunity to work beside Cima chefs, attend events hosted by Christian Apetz of the Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, and participate in Vail Valley Youth Foundation-sponsored classes? Most of all, they are learning one of the joys of cooking, namely the camaraderie that comes in sharing with others the experience of transforming simple ingredients into scrumptious meals.
And what could bring a group of aspiring young chefs together better than a team competition against some of the best chefs in the Valley? Entrusted with the 50 pounds of lamb event sponsor, The Colorado Lamb Board, donated, Sanders and her team of chefs created and prepared lamb in mole sauce en papillote finished with a citrus lime foam that would make culinary foam creator, Chef Ferran Adria proud, and pickled Fresno chili and cabbage salsa. Unfortunately, I was busy prepping for weekend holiday meals in my own kitchen, so I missed the excitement of prepping with the little chefs in Cima's kitchen.
The lamb that almost wasn't cooked off
My experience with the Little Chefs team began in an appropriate place, in front of the Children's Fountain in the heart of Vail. While waiting, I had the opportunity to chat with competition neighbor, Stephen Negler, owner of Ti Amo in Eagle-Vail, who later proved to be the little chefs' guardian angel. And then the sad news arrived. As the little chefs' professional grill was being transported to Vail, it fell off the back of the truck, hitting another car, and leaving the little chefs without a cooking surface. But their heartbreak was fleeting. By the time Sanders had arrived - sans grill, but still smiling - Negler and his executive chef, Fernando Ocampo, had already "donated" half the space on their grill to the little chefs. However, the lamb, which had been cooked sous vide the previous day, was to be finished en papillote. Paper has a nasty way of burning on a flaming grill. A sheet pan was needed. Off to Sweet Basil and up the stairs to their kitchen I ran where the chef took pity on us and provided a sheet pan. Back to the grill.
With the help of the older little chefs, Alex Ruben, Jillian Byron and Hugo Castillo, the younger chefs were organized into stations to assemble the lamb packages. Although they were dressed in chefs' jackets and aprons, it wasn't exactly the plating line at Splendido. But with the older chefs' patient guidance and Sanders' supervision, the kids completed the assembly in no time. Without another sheet pan, we improvised with cardboard boxes used for paper plates and shuttled the completed lamb packages between the little chefs' tent and Ti Amo's. It wasn't enough that Chef Ocampo spared part of his grill for a band of child chefs he didn't know, he also stood guard to monitor the grill's temperature so as not to scorch the paper. It was this kindness of strangers that I believe was one of the biggest lessons for the kids. Tragedies may happen, and in kitchens they always do, but solutions can be found and the day saved.
A happy ending
After the tasting was over and the lines of festival guests finished the last morsels of lamb, it was time to pack up and head home after an eventful first experience in the Lamb Cook-Off. Later at home, while beginning the article and wishing for a great ending, I got a call from Sanders who had the perfect ending for me. The Little Chefs of Vail placed second to Chef David Clawson of Game Creek Club in the People's Choice contest. Although they had missed the judges' tasting, the collaborative efforts of the team, new friends and supporters gave them the opportunity to savor the good taste of having their culinary creations appreciated.
People like Sanders always inspire me. They chase their dreams by carving out creative niche businesses that ripple throughout society. And now she is helping transform the lives of young children through the joy of cooking. Sanders hopes one day there will be Little Chefs of Everytown USA, giving children throughout the country the opportunity to experience culinary delights. The day ended for Sanders with a text from young Jillian Byron that said, in part, "this would have never happened if you had not inspired me to do this. If it were not for you, I would not be the chef I am right now." With that text, she had proof that she had succeeded in her mission.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.