A smack of the gong, and the secret ingredient was revealed. Fog theatrically burst out from underneath the previously covered shrimp and filled the room.
Members of the two teams quickly gathered the fresh vegetables, cheese, fruit, eggs and more for the dishes they'd be making within the next 25 minutes.
This, to be sure, was not an ordinary day of school at St. Louis University High School.
The inaugural Iron Chef SLUH Feb. 27 was a fast-paced, fun takeoff of the Food Network show based upon a Japanese cult sensation. Iron Chef America carries on the legend of Kitchen Stadium and the famed "secret ingredient" as world-class chefs battle the legendary Iron Chefs of America.
At the Jesuit high school in St. Louis, the event showcased two chefs and restaurateurs, Brendan Kirby, SLUH class of 1999 and owner of Seed Sprout Spoon, and Alex Feldmeier, class of 2004 and sous chef at Brasserie. Each chef was assisted by three students.
Two faculty members, Adam Cruze and Patrick Zarrick served as host/commentators, keeping the audience entertained. As the time ticked by, Cruze was fond of stating, "the pressure is palpable."
After a countdown, the gong sounded again. Feldmeier's team presented the four judges with a shrimp salad and a slider. Kirby's team had a fish taco, salad and soup. Judging was based on presentation, creativity and taste. An announcement was made later in the day: Feldmeier's team won by one-hundreth of a point.
The sustainability club at SLUH sponsored the competition, and the event sought to expose students to healthy eating that uses low-impact, flavor-packed food, linking it to Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si' (On Care for Our Common Home)" and the Lenten season.
"The goal was to educate people about really healthy, nutritious, high-protein food for Lent that tastes great," said Anne Marie Lodholz, a social studies teacher who is the sustainability (responsible stewardship of the earth's resources for all of God's people) club moderator. "It also considers the quality of life of the people who farm the fish, which borders on slave labor. A lot of times those boats are in international waters and outside the reign of governments trying to enforce labor laws."
Especially during Lent, Lodholz said, "we're trying to show the kids you can make amazing-tasting food that is really fun to make while we respect the environment and protect people's quality of life as well. All the fish comes from responsibly farmed and caught places from Bob's Seafood."
Food, Lodholz said, "is a celebration of what God's given us. We wanted to celebrate that and showcase the rich culinary environment of St. Louis."
Leftover food was given to St. Patrick Center, as were funds from an admission fee and T-shirt sales. Much of the food was donated by businesses, including Boland Farms in Ferguson, City Greens Market, Earth Dance, Companion Bread and others.
Feldmeier said he let the students take the reins and decide what to make, a difficult task given the time constraint. Even though the competition was fast-paced, it was a little more laid-back than a professional environment, he said. "Doing stuff that's away from my everyday norm and educating people, especially the young men who come here, I wanted to jump at that opportunity," he said.
Kirby was "pleasantly surprised" by how well his team worked together. "Regardless of whether we won or lost, it was a great time," he said. "Using the produce available from the local farms was outstanding. The variety of local stuff was even more than what we get to work with on a daily basis. I was overwhelmed by choices."
Sophomore Mikes Trittler, who served under Kirby, was taught to cook by his grandmother, and appreciated using that skill to help raise money for St. Patrick Center. He's more comfortable working with meat such as lamb chops, but Kirby put him at ease. "It was a fun thing to do in front of my classmates," he said.
Freshman Ismail Hacking served under Feldmeier and liked being part of a team that showed off their culinary abilities. His team had to rebound when fellow freshman Julian Verde cut himself and had to head to the sidelines.
Michele Bildner of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health was among the nonstudents attending and was pleased to see how the school weaved in the educational concepts in an entertaining manner. "I'm impressed that the school supported this unique kind of activity. You don't see that very often," Bildner said.