Cooking up Change: In the Words of a Student Chef

June 18, 2013

Q&A: Today we sit down with one of the Cooking up Change student chefs from Memphis!

Another Cooking up Change competition has successfully come and gone, and the chefs had an exciting few days in Washington, D.C., preparing their meals and taking in the sights.

One team had a particularly whirlwind trip — Tavarious Cleaves and LaKeidra Greer, from Memphis, made it to D.C. just in time for the contest and to serve up their Memphis barbecue-inspired chicken tacos. We sat down with Tavarious, one of the student chefs from Memphis, a city new to Cooking up Change, to talk about his favorite parts of the contest, Memphis barbecue and what he likes about D.C.

Healthy Schools Campaign: What was going through your mind on your way to the contest?

Tavarious Cleaves: Hopefully that we’re going to make it. We didn’t think we were going to make it because of traffic. We didn’t think we were even going to make it to the airport. We finally got there in the end.

HSC: That was a relief. What a long day.

TC: Yeah, it impacted me a little bit. But we had time to clear our heads. I had time to think about our plan of attack, how I want to walk, talk, assert what I want to do.

HSC: What were some of the challenges you faced in the kitchen?

TC: We already knew it was going to be a little bit tough. The kitchen was a little tight. We expected to be sharing a few things, working around each other, falling over each other. For equipment, we had to share that, and it wasn’t quite the same pots and pans we were used to. We were used to adversity and the challenge.

HSC: How did you navigate those challenges?

TC: Just asserting ourselves in the kitchen. The kitchen is my domain, no matter how many people are in there or what we’re doing. I’m glad we got the preview of the kitchen, because we wanted to see who we’d be working with, where we could prep. I wanted to make sure I had  everything I needed, stovetops and things. As a team, we had our battle plan set out. We all felt the pressure as time wound down.

HSC: How was it presenting to the judges? Did you practice at all?

TC: I really didn’t practice what I was going to say. Telling the truth, you feel comfortable saying it. It all came from right off the top of the head, and the love of cooking just flowed out.

HSC: You really represented Memphis out there!

TC: It was very important to us to do that. You go to a different city, you want to bring some, showing off the heritage we have with food. In Memphis, barbeque is a way of life. If you’re on vacation there, you have to have barbeque at least once. And making barbeque healthy, it’s a tricky thing, but I do a lot of crowd-sourcing and asking people what their critiques are, and I think we did a good job.

HSC: What was your favorite part of the contest?

TC: Being in the dining room and seeing the lines of people eating our food, that was wonderful. Even if we didn’t win, it felt good. The people saying our food tasted delicious, and they were going to go home and make it themselves and introduce their families to it. We had taken pictures with people we didn’t know because of the food!

Meeting the other chefs was great, too. I thought that there was going to be a little tension, like there was at the other competitions I’ve been in, but there really wasn’t. As soon as we got there, everyone greeted us with smiling faces. We instantly felt comfortable. Usually, at competitions, chefs are staring each other down. This competition was a lot different. We were helping each other prepare our meals, and we really got to know each other and learn different techniques and time management from each other.

HSC: What was the overall highlight of this experience for you?

TC: Doing the presentation to the judges, to be honest! My favorite part was doing the presentation because I got to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the foods that kids eat and what we thought about it and my resources, and how we could make this food better. The whole presentation itself, really.

HSC: What did you think of Washington, D.C.?

TC: The city is wonderful, that big city life. There’s a lot of history in D.C. We got to visit all the different memorials, which I loved. It was cool to see all the busy people working and walking and talking and getting things done. At the Capitol, we got to meet with Rep. Fincher from our area, and we got to go see the office of our representative. Exciting to go see his office — and hopefully soon, we’ll get to meet him.

HSC: What did you learn or gain from this experience?

TC: I hope we made a big impact. We automatically think, it’s hard to make a healthy meal with something you like, without adding salt, pepper, a whole stick of butter. But the competition proves that wrong. You can make delicious, healthy food that students will want to eat. I think schools will pick up on that and take that challenge, and lawmakers will back that point up.

HSC: What are your future plans?

TC: I’m going to keep doing what I do best, continue my education in the culinary arts. I plan on getting my Bachelor’s degree from a four-year college and pick up on what I learned. I like to keep learning and keep using what I have learned along the way. And I learned a lot from Cooking up Change. I’m putting healthy food in my reservoir now. This helped me learn how to make my food interesting and healthy. Another new challenge.