Oliva was happy to play the role of amateur restaurant critic for a single lunch period.
Oliva, a fifth-grader at Sagebrush Elementary School, couldn’t stop raving about the “Cheeseburger Soup” that Cherry Creek School District Executive Chef Brandon Durio had served on a warm fall afternoon on Oct. 23. The soup’s flavorful combination of ground hamburger, cheese, carrots, onions, low-sodium chicken broth and other savory elements was a hit.
“It was delicious,” Oliva said. “It is better than the food we usually get!”
Beside him, the student responsible for the recipe offered a humble smile. Fifth-grader Donovan Mack had submitted the recipe as part of the district’s celebration of National School Lunch Week. Mack, along with dozens of other elementary students at schools across the district, took part in a contest that encouraged students to suggest their own healthy, tasty, tried-and-true recipes. Mack was one of five fifth-graders who won the top prize: having Durio visit the school and prepare the meal as part of the standard lunch menu for the whole school.
“It was something that my mom first made for me,” Mack said, adding that he wanted to put his own spin and offer it to his fellow students. “I thought other people would like it.”
Durio, along with other officials from the district’s Student Nutrition team and members of district cabinet, were among those that liked the recipe’s combination of heartiness, flavor and healthy ingredients. While Mack’s initial recipe only called for one pound of meat, Durio expanded the recipe to 30 pounds, or enough to feed the entire school.
“This recipe worked with ingredients that we use in our schools and that are part of our nutritional plan for students,” Durio said. “One of the things that really stood out in Donovan’s recipe was the amount of veggies. It’s not just cheese and beef; there are lots of onions, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes.”
During the district’s celebration of School Lunch Week from Oct. 22 to 26, Durio and his staff were also set to visit Timberline, Dakota Valley, Willow Creek and Heritage elementary schools. Students who won top honors included Cooper Watts, Xander Lewis and Mercer Reilly for recipes that ran the gamut from vegetarian selections like chickpea stew to hearty, healthy seasonal selections like pumpkin chili.
“The recipe contest gives our students a chance to participate in the process and a unique way to show us what they’d like to see on our menu,” said Erica Edwards, director of the district’s Food and Nutrition Services. “I love to see students enjoy cooking and enjoy food in a hands-on way.”
Winning students left their lunch period with special red chef hats and smocks, tokens of their official roles as Durio’s recognized sous-chefs for the day. Durio was happy to have innovative gourmands like Mack on his crew.
“I was blown away by the versatility of these young chefs,” Durio said. “I’m so happy to see how much student involvement we have with this; it’s brought School Lunch Week to a new level in the Cherry Creek School District.”