Publication / The Daily Beast
August 19, 2012
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The Obamas Celebrate Young Chefs at a State Dinner

These preteens can’t even vote yet, but the First Family is honoring them with a dinner fit for a diplomat–made up of meals created by the kids themselves. By Miranda Green.

Golden Moroccan Butternut Stew, Alaska Teriyaki Salmon Wrap, and Vegetable Quinoa Salad with Chicken are just a few of the dishes that might be served at the White House’s upcoming state dinner. It will be an affair fit for a diplomat, but the chefs and the diners aren’t even old enough to drive.

That’s right, the august event on Monday is tailored to children.

“She’s really looking forward to meeting Mrs. Obama and getting a chance to talk to the other kid chefs,” says Debra Steppel, whose 9-year-old daughter Madeleine is one of 54 children between the age of 8 and 12 attending the event.

Last spring Madeleine submitted one of her recipes to a competition she saw on the food blog Epicurious. The guidelines for the “Healthy Lunchtime Challenge” were simple: the recipe had to be inherently nutritious, follow the USDA healthy-plate guidelines, and be tasty and 100 percent original.

“Madeleine has always been nicknamed Soup Girl. I don’t think she’s ever met a soup she didn’t like, so we knew her recipe would be a soup,” Steppel says.

The pair pored over cookbooks for inspiration before deciding on a fish chowder modeled after their state’s official beverage and fish: milk and brook trout. To make the dish healthier they got rid of the heavy cream and added colorful vegetables.

A little over a month later, Madeleine was announced the winner in Virginia.

“When she found out she had won she screamed,” Steppel says. “Then she asked if she could have a new dress.”

Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of Epicurious and creator of the competition, was struck by the submissions. “What I was impressed by was the freshness of foods and the imaginativeness of them,” she says. “I was so excited to see that kids really have gotten this message about healthy eating. The recipes were sophisticated and efficient and they even knew what lactose-free meant.”

“When she found out she had won she screamed. Then she asked if she could have a new dress.”

The competition was Steel’s brainchild. Having previously teamed up with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, she devised the event as a way to get kids excited about healthy eating. Steel partnered up with some Washington-based chefs to judge the semi-final food entries—all 108 of them.

“At at the end there’s always a winner, but the truth was that all the kids that decided to submit a recipe were winners, some of the dishes were great and the ideas were awesome,” says chef Jose Andres, guest judge for the competition.

The contest hit close to home for Andres, who has three children, aged 8, 11, and 13.

“I try to just give them the parameters that I think are the best,” he says. “I don’t like to use the term ‘eating healthy.’ I think everything in the right proportion is eating healthy. I think at the end of the day it’s making sure people are thinking before they eat.”

In addition to having their recipes potentially cooked for them at the state dinner, the winning kids—one from each state and U.S. territory—will spend an all-expense-paid 24 hours in Washington touring Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian, having a pizza party, and seeing the White House garden up close. Their recipes will also be published online in an electronic cookbook on the day of the dinner.

“I really hope that families get together and make some of them and hang out and have some of those good quality moments that are sorely disappearing in our crazed lifestyles,” says Steel, who also hopes the dinner will become an annual event. “There is nothing more inspiring then being able to go to our nation’s most important building and meet a great leader.”