It didn't take much cajoling to convince Barrington Middle School seventh-grader Madison Gentry to enter the second annual Cook It Up! school lunch cook-off.
When she learned the grand prize was two tickets to the sold-out Justin Bieber "Believe" tour in Orlando Jan. 25, the 12-year-old rushed to sign up.
"I love Justin Bieber," said Gentry, the daughter of Brian and Holly Gentry. "I only listen to his music. So I was so excited when I heard you could win tickets to his concert."
Cook It Off! is sponsored by Hillsborough County School District's Student Nutrition Services to encourage students to promote the importance of healthy eating and introduce new, kid-appealing school meal options.
In November, public school students in grades three to eight were invited to submit a healthy and creative entrée recipe, along with a short essay explaining what makes their recipe nutritious and why it’s important to establish healthful eating habits.
Barrington culinary arts teacher Stephanie Martin, who also runs a personal chef business from her Bloomingdale East home, encouraged her students to enter.
Dozens of students from throughout Hillsborough County submitted recipes, but only five were chosen to compete in the school lunch cook-off taking place Thursday, Jan. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Blake High School dining room, 1701 N. Boulevard, Tampa.
Gentry said she was thrilled to learn she was among the finalists named Dec. 19.
Finalists were chosen based on the recipe's creativity and originality, use of two or more food groups, ease of preparation in a school kitchen, and quality and content in the student’s written essay.
Other finalists are Kayla Sieper, a fifth-grader from Bryant Elementary School; Nalonna Graybeal, a fifth-grader from Mintz Elementary School; Amber Buchanan, a seventh-grader from the Rampello Downtown Partnership K-8 School; and Arianna White, an eighth-grader from Memorial Middle School.
Gentry said she became interested in cooking this year when she took Martin's elective class at Barrington.
"I'm really enjoying it," said Gentry. "It's cool to see how you can put all these ingredients together and then watch how it turns out."
Martin has taught culinary arts to seventh- and eighth-graders at Barrington for three years, emphasizing the use of whole grains, fresh ingredients and healthy ways to prepare foods.
"McDonald's is a cuss word in my class," said Martin. "I'm trying to break the mindset that just because something tastes good doesn't mean it's good for you."
With that in mind, Gentry said she set out to create a healthy recipe based on Justin Bieber's song, "All Around the World."
"I chose dishes from different cultures around the world, and then made up the recipes," said Gentry.
Her submission for the contest includes her own recipes for teriyake chicken, Spanish rice and tomatoes and okra seasoned with curry powder and Creole seasoning.
"All the ingredients are fresh and organic," said Gentry. "And, just as Mrs. Martin taught us, I made grain (the rice) the main source of the meal, rather than meat."
During the cook-off Thursday night, Whole Foods, an event sponsor, will provide all of the ingredients for each of the finalists to prepare their recipes for a panel of five culinary experts and three high school culinary students.
Judges include Mike Beadles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive chef; Jason Dame, Datz chef; Brian Ford, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vice president of business administration; Isabel Laessig, founder of the Family Foodie blog; and Michele Northrup, founder of Intensity Academy Gourmet Sauces.
The judges will score the recipes based on the meal's texture, taste, creativity and presentation. And then one participant will be named Cook It Up’s Ultimate School Lunch Chef.
In addition to two tickets to the Justin Bieber concert, the winner will receive one-night hotel accommodations, compliments of Radio Disney.
The winning recipe also will be featured on the districtwide school lunch menu, the winning chef will receive an invitation to appear on Radio Disney’s “Kid’s Concern Show” and will celebrate with a school lunch party hosted by Radio Disney.
Gentry will have plenty of people rooting for her during the competition. In addition to her family, Martin and Barrington Principal Maribeth Brooks will attend the cook-off.
"I'm kind of nervous," admitted Gentry. "It would be so amazing to win the Justin Bieber tickets."