By Kate Quesada
When students at Bloomingdale High School chose Citrus Chicken Tacos with Watermelon Salsa for lunch from the cafeteria last month, many of them didn’t realize they were eating a dish created by one of their own. Senior Gigi Rivera developed the recipe for the meal and it won her first place in the 2016-17 Fresh From Florida Student Cook-Off, sponsored by The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. One of the prizes for winning the contest was to have her recipe served at her school.
The cook-off invites students in ninth to 12th grade to create and prepare an original recipe that uses fresh Florida products and meets the National School Lunch Program nutrition standards. All entries must contain at least one fresh fruit or vegetable grown in Florida. Five regional champions were chosen to compete in the finals in Orlando in April and Rivera took first place.
“Our goal for the contest is to get students to understand Florida produce, while of course helping them to understand the importance of cooking,” said Chef Paula Kendrick of the Florida Department of Agriculture.
The school culinary department hosted a surprise celebration lunch for Rivera when her dish was served in the student cafeteria, attended by representatives from state departments and Bloomingdale High alumni Wesley Roderick, executive chef at On Swann in south Tampa.
Rivera credits her grandmother with her love for cooking.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am,” said Rivera, who is the oldest of five siblings. “She not only helped me realize that cooking can be fun, but more importantly, that healthy cooking can be fun.”
According to her parents, Amy and John McClane, Rivera spent hours at home brainstorming her cook-off recipe.
“We had a lot of taco nights while she was preparing,” said John.
In addition to school, Rivera works as an assistant chef at La Septima in Brandon where she started at two years ago as a hostess and has progressed to being allowed to create lunch specials since winning the cook-off.
“This contest has given me the confidence I need to follow my dream of eventually opening my own restaurant,” said Rivera, who is looking at different colleges, including the Culinary Institute of America in New York, with culinary programs to attend after graduation in May.
Bloomingdale High School is located at 1700 E. Bloomingdale Ave. and can be reached at 744-8018. For more information on the Fresh From Florida Student Cook-Off, visit www.freshfromflorida.com.