It was like a scene from a "Top Chef" competition on television.

In just under an hour, eight middle school students, paired with award-winning local chefs, frantically chopped, stirred and seared their culinary creations for a panel of local celebrity judges.

The Minneapolis Public Schools' food department hosted its first Junior Chef competition to show students and parents how to use fresh ingredients in their everyday cooking and get students excited about eating healthy foods.

"We are raising awareness about the district's shift away from processed and convenience food to clean eating," said Andrea Northup, the district's Farm to School coordinator and organizer of the event.

The students, selected from pool of 50 applicants, and their chefs were given turkey thighs and a medley of grains to create an entree and a side grain salad. They had an assortment of peppers, herbs and spices to choose from and were allowed to pick six "secret ingredients" from the store at the Wedge Table, the south Minneapolis market and cafe where the event was held.

In front of an audience of dozens of parents and community members, the coaches and students discussed their favorite cuisines and flavors. Then they raced to the pantry to pick their ingredients and begin cooking.

Marshall Paulsen, of Birchwood Cafe, and his two junior chefs, Gabe Chang-Deutsch and Tatianna Bady, used a chile rub to make a Mexican-style turkey with a grain cake on the side.

TJ Rawitzer, of Tiny Diner, and students Kay Carvajal Moran and Yuepheng Chang made a stuffed turkey thigh using Brie, a carrot purée, caramelized onion and garlic.

Ann Kim, of Pizzeria Lola, helped Castor Puleston and Nou Thao make a Mexican-inspired turkey chili and a salsa-grain salad.

Students Tiffani Ford and Janaan Ahmed, along with Erica Strait, owner of Foxy Falafel, skewered their chipotle turkey with coffee stirrers and added blueberries and corn to their grain salad, tossed with a honey vinaigrette.

The students' cooking skills ranged widely: one wasn't sure how to finely chop tomato; another helps her mother cook potluck meals for their church. But they were all enthusiastic about learning to cook and work with the local chefs. The chefs have all helped the district raise funds to install more salad bars in schools.

Ahmed, a seventh-grader at Anwatin Middle School, cooks breakfast for her family almost every weekend. Sausage, pancake balls and waffles are usually on the menu. But during the week she prefers lighter fare.

"I like cooking anything with corn, and I try to incorporate proteins in my meals," Ahmed said. "Sometimes I also make fruit salad for dinner, instead of a green salad, just to be different."

After an hour of chopping, searing and plating, the chefs presented their dishes to a panel of judges, including district officials, food critics and City Council members. The dishes were judged on taste, presentation, creativity and teamwork.

Mecca Bos, the food critic for City Pages, said much of the food was "better than the restaurants that I review."

The event organizers and the chefs said they hope the competition will inspire families and students to think more about the food they eat.

Parents and community members had a chance to sample the types of foods served at Minneapolis schools. The offerings included an apple kale salad, which students renamed green lava, that used kale the district purchased after it was damaged by hail.

"If we can turn a student on to cooking, or have the student tell his or her peer about their experience working with a chef, that's something that will last long after this event," Northup said.

Kim, of Pizzeria Lola, and her students won the event with their Mexican-inspired turkey chili. She shared one team member's sentiment when their dish was named the best.

"Castor said, 'I'm not here for the prize, I'm here for the cooking,' " Kim said. "Right on, man."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028