For the first time ever, five young culinary artists will compete in the Team Tennessee Teen Cook-Off at the Chattanooga Market on June 24th for a chance to win a “golden ticket” to the 2018 World Food Championships this fall. Assistant Executive Director of Public Markets, Melissa Lail, says, “Our big passion is food, and we love to share ideas and collaborate with the community. We’ve been working with local chefs for years and connecting them with the public and local farms. We thought ‘why not work with the younger generation and help them get their start?’ And so, we embarked on something we think will grow and provide real value for teens.”
Public Markets’ (state representative for World Food Championships) idea for a teen competition went up the ladder—for the first time, WFC has now created a teen component at their national event. The five competitors for the Chattanooga event were vetted through an online application process which included essay style questions.
Here, they dish about their skills and their plans for the future.
Aaron Sutton, 16, Shaw Academy online student, Dalton, Georgia
Culinary strength: Organization
Aaron Sutton’s primary reason for cooking, he says, is simple: “I love to eat.”
Sutton was a 12-year-old Boy Scout when he discovered a talent for cooking during chili cook-offs and Golden Spoon contests. Later, he aced the culinary competitions sponsored by Cleveland State Community College. These days, the recent home-school graduate enjoys playing guitar, fixing old cars, and cooking outdoors—so much so that he prepares most of the food for family events. “I like cooking burgers, chili, just basically anything to do with the grill,” he says.
He hopes to cook professionally and someday open a barbecue restaurant. For now, Sutton is working in the kitchen at the Cleveland Country Club and taking online photography classes through Shaw Academy.
He’s a bit nervous, he admits, about the Teen Cook-Off. “I wasn’t exactly expecting to be picked, so it definitely comes as a shock,” he says. But he’s ready. “I have OCD, actually, so when it comes to organization, I’m pretty on point.”
Demeatrice “Dee” Hicks, 17, senior, Ooltewah High School
Teammate: Destiny Linebaugh
Culinary strength: Keen memory
For Demeatrice “Dee” Hicks, cooking was, and still is, a way to spend one-on-one time with his grandmother, helping her whip up made-from-scratch Southern fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. “It brings back good memories,” he says, adding, “My mom doesn’t know how to cook, so I had to take it into consideration to learn how in case something ever happened to Grandma.”
In addition to soul food, he loves to bake and also prepare baked seafood dishes, from salmon and flounder to shrimp.
A basketball player who has already completed all three culinary arts classes offered at Ooltewah High School, he currently works part-time at Chicken Salad Chick, where he often assembles catering trays. A born nurturer, he wants to become a nurse. Even if he pursued his second choice—culinary arts—he says he would want to help people with cancer and other illnesses boost their health through good nutrition. “I love helping folks,” he says. “I like to make people smile.”
Micah Crawford, 18, freshman, Walters State Community College, Church Hill, Tennessee
Culinary strength: Uniqueness
Six years ago, the moist chocolate chip brownies Micah Crawford baked and sent to his brother and sister in college were such a hit with their classmates that he started getting requests. Before long, he started observing his mother in the kitchen and eventually became the family cook, switching up her basic recipes. “Whenever Mom would make quesadillas, she just kind of made them plain,” he says. “Whenever I did it, I’d always use Cajun seasoning, basil leaves, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper, and mix it all together. I also added jalapeños just to give it a little bit of a fire.”
At Volunteer High School in Church Hill, Crawford honed his skills with culinary classes and is now working on a business degree with an eye toward opening a restaurant that serves people in need, an idea he got while donating his time at a local nonprofit that feeds hungry kids.
Adventurous and determined, Crawford loves to play around with new dishes. “If it doesn’t work out, then I always keep trying,” he says. “Whenever you cook, you never really fail.”
Rachel Kleban, 16, junior, Baylor School
Teammate: Claire Austin
Culinary strength: Creativity
On a whim, Rachel Kleban decided one day to bake a batch of crusty sourdough bread. “It turned out that it took me a few weeks because you have to make a leaven and starter,” she recalls. “But it was really worth it in the end.”
This wasn’t the first time the fun-loving, all-out Kleban had tackled a tough kitchen challenge. Since she was little, she’d been helping her grandmother concoct “real-deal, super hard to make” German desserts such as Vanillekipferl (vanilla crescent cookies), strudel and biscotti.
These days, Kleban enjoys adding her own spin to existing recipes, including cauliflower rice bowls seasoned with different sauces and spices. Not surprisingly, her specialty is bread, from homegrown rosemary to Southern cornbread.
Kleban is no stranger to the Chattanooga Market, as she frequently works in her sister’s food truck, Cookie Cow. “The energy there is just great,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Hey, where better to [compete] than there?’”
Kleban says she is learning a lot in her job as a sandwich maker at Jimmy John’s in East Brainerd and hopes to blend her two loves, gardening and cooking, into a career as a flavor developer for food companies. “I love to incorporate natural flavors so I’m really big on growing my own food,” says Kleban, who tends a large garden at home and another one at Baylor. “In my cooking, I try to get the freshest ingredients to get the best result.”
Spencer Wagner, 16, sophomore, Hilger Higher Learning, Signal Mountain
Teammate: Kyle Kilpatrick
Culinary strength: Willingness to experiment
Spencer Wagner clearly remembers his first cooking lesson at around age 5, when his dad showed him how to make pancakes, a family standby on weekends. “We’d always have fun talking to each other,” Wagner says. “That’s what, I think, started my loving to cook.” Breakfast is still his favorite food category, although he’s also known for his pound cake, which he often takes to parties.
“I’m willing to experiment,” he says, describing how he mixes a few drops of sweet honey with savory, pan-fried corn. “What I’ve been practicing on is flavor combinations. I mix different fruits, vegetables, seasonings and other things, giving each thing a shot. Of course not everything’s perfect. I’ve had a couple that I don’t want to do again, but some of them—my family and my friends have all said, ‘That’s a really great dish.’”
Inspired by three Signal Mountain establishments—the now-closed Max’s restaurant, The Bread Basket, and 517—Wagner plans to open a family-run restaurant and bakery and pass his skills to his own children.
The Teen Cook-Off, which he considers a “huge honor,” is his first cooking competition, but the prospect of a watchful crowd doesn’t faze Wagner. “I love having people around,” says the self-described extrovert. “I feel better when I have more friends.”