Augusta Food Works team wins big in national competition

team members posing with skillet tropies

Virginia’s National Champion Food Challenge Team; pictured from left to right: Luke Jennings, Jordan Strickler, Madeline Rothwell, and Ryan Sensabaugh.

The Augusta County Food Works team took home top honors at the National 4-H Food Challenge, held Oct. 4 in Dallas. The team topped a competitive 11-team field to be crowned 2016 national champions.

The four-member team included:

  • Luke Jennings of Staunton, Virginia;
  • Madeline Rothwell of Staunton, Virginia;
  • Ryan Sensabaugh of Greensville, Virginia; and
  • Jordan Strickler of Staunton, Virginia.

Food Challenge is a fast-paced competition that involves teamwork, food preparation and cooking, food and kitchen safety, an oral presentation, and nutrition knowledge. Similar to the TV show “Chopped,” teams of three to five young people are given mystery ingredients that must be combined into a dish for a panel of judges. Teams have 40 minutes to prepare a dish, calculate its cost per serving, create a presentation on its nutritional value, and clean their workspace.

The Augusta County team has been practicing together for about a year and a half with the help of head coach Marie Rothwell, a 4-H youth development Extension agent in Augusta County, and parent volunteer Marsha Sensabaugh. At each practice, the team worked on food preparation, knife use, culinary skills, and plating aesthetics.

The Augusta County 4-H’ers earned their spot in the competition by placing first at the state level during 4-H Congress in June. Following this win, they immediately set their sights on the national contest, which required additional practice and fundraising for the trip to Dallas.

The secret ingredients turned out to be chicken breast, sundried tomatoes, canned artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and spinach. To these ingredients, the team added tomatoes, garlic, spices, and feta cheese. Team members plated the dish by slicing the chicken breast diagonally and placing it over a bed of the vegetables, sprinkling the plate with finely chopped parsley, and adding a rose crafted from tomato skin inside a button mushroom for a garnish.

When the team presented its completed dish to the three judges, members discussed food safety practices, the USDA’s MyPlate eating guidelines, the dish’s nutrition information and healthy alternatives, and their cost analysis. They also shared how they benefited from participating in the 4-H Food Challenge, which included learning to cook healthy meals, budgeting, and working as a team.

The Augusta County team beat out four teams from Texas, two from Georgia, and one each from Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky.

“Texas and Georgia took four of the top five, and they then announced Virginia as the national champions,” Rothwell said. “The team was ecstatic.”

Members of the Augusta County Food Works Team received beautiful iron skillets with an engraved wood plaque naming them the National 4-H Food Challenge Grand Champion Team for 2016.

“It has been amazing to watch how streamlined the team has become with their skill and communication as a unit,” said Rothwell. “In the beginning, I had to encourage them to talk to one another so they could be on the same page. Over time, the team was so in sync that they were able to accomplish tasks with minimal verbal communication. They have gotten used to how the others operate at the table and what tasks and skills each is good at. When you watch them, it seems as if they are reading each other’s minds. On the national stage, it was evident the team knew what they were doing. They looked and acted very organized and calm.”

“By winning the national food challenge championship, I see that I can achieve great things with hard work and perseverance,” team member Ryan Sensabaugh said.