Shouting could be heard far down the hallway from the kitchen at the Berks Career & Technology Center East Campus in Oley Township, and inside the culinary students were scrambling.

Those students were split into two-person teams and were hustling to finish chopping vegetables, mixing sauces, frying hamburgers and otherwise complete meals.

Doing the yelling were two Army National Guard drill instructors and a recruiter who were judging the students' creations.
 
This all happened Friday during the school’s second annual Army National Guard Chopped competition, based on the popular "Chopped" cooking show.
 
The twist was the students had to take MREs — the prepacked ready-to-eat meals given to troops in the field — and reinvent them into something as tasty as possible for the judges.
 
“We know what MREs taste like. We want these to taste better,” said Staff Sgt. Randy Gibson, a recruiter for the Kutztown area.
 
Also judging were the students’ culinary instructor, Eric Lynch, and drill Sgts. Andres Sanchez and Luis Molina of the Kutztown National Guard Armory.
 
The soldiers made sure the students kept moving, barking at them to hurry and loudly questioning what they were doing, a tamer version of how they handle recruits, or how chef Gordon Ramsey shouts at competitors on his shows.
 
The judges said it was good preparation for the high-stress conditions of professional kitchens, where many will eventually work.
 
Though initially some students seemed taken aback by the yelling and orders, they quickly adjusted and handled it well.
 
Student Gabby Peralta said she actually liked the shouting.
 
“At first it was stressful, but then it was motivating,” she said.
 

'Unique' and 'creative' 

Lynch said he jumped at the opportunity to have his students take part when Gibson came to him with the idea last year.
 
The students spend about half of each school day in their culinary classes at the tech center, and usually need to stick to recipes to learn specific dishes and techniques. But the competition allows them to show off what they’ve learned, to be creative and to think on the fly, Lynch said.
 
“They absolutely love it,” he said.
 
Four two-student teams competed in the morning and another four teams in the afternoon, with the two top duos earning plaques for finishing first.
 
Lynch hopes to continue it as a yearly competition, although this year’s event almost didn’t happen due to coronavirus concerns. But because most schools were still open Friday it went on, although several students from closed schools couldn’t come.
 
The students had a variety of MREs to choose from, ranging from creamy spinach fettucine to chili with beans to chicken chunks, and most contained side dishes or desserts. But the packages aren’t transparent, so they didn’t know exactly what they were getting until they opened them.
 
Although all the packages contain the endorsement that they’re “warfighter tested, warfighter approved,” the soldiers judging agreed that some of the meals taste much better and are more popular with the troops than others.
 
Most sought after are the vegetarian meals, because they are most likely to come with Skittles or cookies, Gibson said.
 
Each of them contain 4,000 to 5,000 calories and are loaded with sodium because they’re meant to last a service member an entire day in the field, so the students were encouraged to take it easy on the salt.
 
They had to add each item in the package, and were advised to add fresh meat, vegetables, fruit, herbs and other items from the school’s refrigerator and pantry and deep fry, saute or otherwise cook them.
 
The students were judged on the taste, creativity and appearance of their dishes. Their teamwork was put to the test, and some fared better than others.
 
A bay leaf used as a garnish drew some questions because those leaves can be a choking hazard, and a chicken sandwich including the MRE peanut butter didn’t quite work.
 
But Molina often politely used the words “unique” or “creative” for the dishes he found a little strange.
 
Others were described as “edible.”
 
But some impressed the judges and were enjoyable to eat, they said.
 
Among the favorites during the morning competition were the buffalo chicken cheese balls a team formed out of chicken pieces, cream cheese, homemade breading and hot sauce, which had the judges going back for seconds.
 
“This was a good day for them,” Lynch said of his students. “It really piqued their creativity.”
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