AUGUSTA — As Jeff Bridges and Tina Hanson competed Thursday in the first Maine Farm to School Cook-Off, their preparation area was calm and organized, a stark contrast to some of the wild and hectic kitchens portrayed on various cooking-related TV shows.

Bridges, the district’s school nutrition director, and Hanson, the food service specialist at Maranacook Community High School, competed against teams from Lewiston and RSU 13/Five Town Central School District in the event, which included a breakfast and lunch challenge, at the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta. Maranacook’s school district is Regional School Unit 38, which consists of Manchester, Mount Vernon, Readfield and Wayne.

The Food Network and the Cooking Channel definitely have influenced students, said Bridges and one of the judges, Michael Flynn.

“Kids will come in and talk to me about stuff they are seeing on television,” said Bridges, who works at RSU 38. “It gives us something to talk about, because I can say I saw that too.”

Flynn, a certified executive chef and the director of student nutrition services at Hyde Schools-Bath, said the questions children ask about food are definitely more advanced than in years past.

“They are becoming skilled at how to prepare food, what is overcooking and undercooking and other things,” Flynn said. “It’s fantastic and the more exposure we give them, is a great opportunity.”

The team of Bridges and Hanson, called the Big Kahuna’s, chose an omelet roll-up and fruit parfait as their breakfast dish. The omelet contained cheddar cheese, tomatoes, yellow peppers, red and green onions, spinach and chopped ham.

As the teams worked in the kitchen, three judges, various faculty members and the news media moved around asking questions, taking pictures and observing the process.

Bridges said one of the reasons they chose that dish is because children want something they can hold in their hand. He said students are advanced when it comes to providing feedback to the school’s food providers and are more than willing to try new foods.

“We have a garden and a greenhouse, so we grow our own stuff, and there are so many farms in the area; so the kids are used to that kind of food,” Bridges said. “These days the kids will try anything.”

Hanson said they get a lot of good feedback because the school offers seven to nine options on a given day. Getting children to try new things is always a challenge, Hanson said, but educating the students about different foods is a big help.

“I know that when I’m serving, I am always talking to them and making sure they know what the food is, where it came from,” Hanson said between chopping peppers and cutting onions. “We make sure they know we want them to try these foods.”

After having 60 minutes to prepare their breakfast dish, the teams presented their creation to the judges. The criteria included presentation, taste, creativity, feasibility in a school program, food safety and time management.

One of the judges, RSU 18’s nutrition director, Will Hamilton, said he liked the omelet idea because it seemed like something that would be cost-effective and relatively easy to make in a school. The team from Lewiston prepared a breakfast quiche with toast and fruit, and the RSU 13/Five Town pair made a blueberry lemon zucchini cake. Another judge, Michael Flynn, said all three teams made dishes that appeared cost- and time-efficient.

“The end result is always the focus,” Flynn said. “When watching (the teams) through the process, you can have a good sense of what the end result will be.”

Capital Area Technical Center student judge Marilyn Branagan said none of the dishes looks like anything she sees at Maranacook Community School, where she is a senior. She said she really likes the way RSU 38’s omelet looked and tasted.

According to a news release, the cook-off is part of the state’s child nutrition projects and follows legislation to support and promote healthy meals in schools.

Stephanie Stambach, a child nutrition consultant for the Maine Department of Education, said she hopes there is enough interest in the program that it continues to grow.

“We’re hoping that the word will get out and that we can have three or four teams per cook-off,” Stambach said. “And hopefully we can expand the regional competitions to more than two, depending on interest.”

The final cook-off is scheduled for May 17 at Kennebec Valley Community College in Clinton. The team from RSU 61 defeated Portland Public Schools in the other regional contest, held Wednesday. At the Augusta contest, the RSU 13/Five Town Central School District team won and will face RSU 61.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ