Catching Up With Last Year’s Cooking up Change Champions

June 06, 2013

Today, we’re catching up with last year’s Cooking up Change national winners!

We’re just days away from the national Cooking up Change competition, and student chefs from the eight competing cities are excited to face off and create their fresh, delicious, healthy school lunches. But before these talented culinary students vie for the title, we thought we’d take a minute to catch up with last year’s winners from Santa Ana, California (now represented as Orange County in the competition). Valley High School students Alex Hernández, Iván López and Ashley Blanco were the favorites in DC. with their delicious Italian-inspired meal of lemon and spinach chicken, Tuscan bean salad and cinnamon poached pears.

After winning the contest, the students received scholarships to continue their culinary education at Orange Coast College in nearby Costa Mesa. Hernández and Blanco both are studying culinary arts there, and López will resume coursework in the fall. The chefs are learning the culinary ropes in the workforce, too—Hernández at Subway and a local fine candy company; Blanco at a restaurant at Disneyland. Blanco says her Cooking up Change experience prepared her for the real-world restaurant experience.

“It’s impacted me in seeing how competitive things were in restaurants,” Blanco says. “Things in the kitchen can be competitive, but chefs have to try to make everybody work together and create a flow, and get the work done as a team.”

All three students agreed that in addition to their professional pursuits, Cooking up Change has had a huge impact on their behaviors at home. Blanco has been educating her family on eating healthier. López, who has been spending a lot of time with his family, doing odd jobs and taking care of his grandmother, found the lessons he learned at Cooking up Change about nutrition—particularly the importance of reading the labels—important to how he cooks at home now. He even gives health tips to his aunts and uncles. “We used to be those people who would eat out every day, because we thought it was easier,” López says. “But now we cook at home a lot more. It is easier than you think.”

For Alex Hernández, the contest got him thinking about the big picture. In addition to taking ownership of his own health, he’s now on a mission to get people more connected with their food and food sources, and to promote good stewardship of the earth. “If people start growing their own fruit, they can become connected with it, turn it into one of the best oranges you’ve ever tasted,” Hernandez says. “I tried one of the best oranges from my neighbor’s tree. And it is truly one of the best oranges I’ve ever tasted.”

And the students also have some big dreams. López hopes to finish his culinary education next year and continue his healthy cooking at home. Blanco plans to open her own restaurant one day. And Hernández has plans to start his own nonprofit sandwich stands, working with sponsors to support the organization. The sandwich stands would be in parks and other venues for sports tournaments, with the money going to support youth sports programs and aspiring athletes to help them pay for training, equipment and more.

“I want to get that message across that healthy eating is good for you and your athleticism,” Hernández explains. “Soon these young athletes will realize how much food has to do with what they do, with the sports. Whatever they consume in their body affects the outcome of how they play. They can get stronger.”

Congratulations again to the 2012 Cooking up Change champions. Thank you for sharing your stories and best of luck in all your future endeavors!