Food Truck Wars: CPS students battle for the best food truck recipe

Josue Cervantes learned to cook from the women in his family. His mother shared recipes from her mother and his grandmother shared his great-grandmother’s recipes. Now, Josue wants to open his own restaurant someday.

“I’ve always told (my mom) that I want to bring back hidden gems that are not really represented here in the United States and that are commonly found in Mexico,” said Josue, 17. “I want to … bring out new flavors and bring out a new palette into people so they could have a little bit of an insight of what Mexico really is.”

Josue has been refining his skills through CPS’s Career and Technical Education Program at North-Grand High School, 4338 W. Wabansia Ave. in Humboldt Park.

The technical program takes lessons from everyday classes, such as math and science, to provide training in real-world workplaces, like the culinary and hospitality fields.

“If they go to culinary art school or any other pathway, the skills they’re learning are transferable and valuable to our students,” said Sherry Franklin, CPS Instructional Support Specialist.

On Friday, Josue and a team of five others demonstrated some of those skills at a food truck-themed competition against three other schools.

Candace Williams (center right), a culinary chef instructor at Manley Career Academy High School, works with Manley students Antonio Anderson, 17, and Layla Sylvester, 17, on Friday.

Candace Williams, 35, a culinary chef instructor at Manley Career Academy High School, helps Manley students (center) Layla Sylvester, 17, and Antonio Anderson, 17, set up their “Burrito Baby” booth during Friday’s “Food Truck Wars” event.

Each school pitched business plans for a truck along with a menu. Then, they offered samples, which the students had cooked that morning at school.

Manley Career Academy’s Burrito Baby truck featured breakfast burrito bowls; Roberto Clemente School’s truck, named Stuff It, offered chicken gyros. North-Grand decided to play up 90’s babies nostalgia.

“We wanted to bring back some hidden memories locked inside us teenagers and adults,” said Josue. He said the goal was to evoke the feeling of watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. So they created The Krusty Sponge, featuring SpongeBob SquarePants-inspired krabby patties (a veggie burger sold in the cartoon).

That effort earned North-Grand honors for best food truck design, for their colorful burgers and lemonade, as well as best pitch.

Burgers and fries prepared by students from North-Grand High School.

Burgers and fries prepared by students from North-Grand High School for the “Food Truck Wars” a cooking contest hosted by Chicago Public Schools at Englewood Community Kitchen. The students created a food truck inspired by “The Krusty Sponge” from SpongeBob SquarePants.

But it was Vaughn Occupational’s wide range of ice creams — hand-churned and made with herbs from their hydroponic garden — that won best recipe.

Judges included representatives from around the culinary industry, including Hill Food Services Consulting, Aramark Food Services and Everfi, which offers a program in which students run a simulated food truck.

“One thing I was looking for was the depth of thought that went into the concept they wanted to bring to this food truck,” said Jonathan Barnes, a judge from Everfi. “Food trucks are super popular so we were looking for really innovative concepts, but also really great food.”

Barnes said the ice cream from Vaughn was some of the best he’d ever tasted.

“You can taste the fun that they had making it and the hard work they put into finding the right balance and the right combinations,” he said.

Anthony McPhee, program director at Careers through Culinary Arts Programs, was shocked the students had hand-churned the ice cream.

“It tastes delicious,” he said. “This would easily be a $3 to $5 bowl. And they have their own garden — that’s a good example of farm-to-table right there.”

Hand-churned ice cream produced by students at Vaughn Occupational High School won best recipe at the “Food Truck Wars” competition.

Vaughn’s Fruitastic Herbalicious Frozen Treats ice cream, prepared by students from Vaughn Occupational High School, won best recipe at the “Food Truck Wars” competition.

Anna Urban from Everfi urged the students to seek out more opportunities to get involved in the culinary arts field. “Keep trying and keep working on it. It’s such a rewarding career field that I feel like all these kids could really do well in.”

Many students on Friday shared stories similar to Josue’s. Vaughn’s Gustavo Patino, 22, became interested in culinary after watching his mother cook for the family. Tatianna Bowlton, 17, from Clemente, used to follow her grandfather around in the kitchen. And Antonio Anderson, 17, who attends Manley, said his mom used to ask for his help when he was little.

That’s why Tatianna said there were no hard feelings toward the winners.

“We’re still proud,” said Tatianna, adding that Friday was more about the experience than walking away with a prize.

But she and all the other students were surprised when Dr. Brian Hill, owner of Hill Food Service Consulting, said they would each receive $100 to purchase monogrammed chef’s jackets.

“I want a pink one,” Tatianna said, laughing.

Cynthia Sandoval, a student at North-Grand High School, learns all students in the Food Truck Wars competition would receive $100 to purchase their own chef’s jackets.

Like the other students, Cynthia Sandoval (right), who attends North-Grand High School, was surprised by the news that all students in the Food Truck Wars competition would receive $100 to purchase their own chef’s jackets.