Ashly Huss was cooking farm-to-table before it was popular. It’s what she did with her mother, Debra Bryant, and her grandmother, Willie Beatrice Cole, when she was young. There was a big garden in their backyard, filled with fruits and vegetables they would bring inside to cook and preserve.
That’s where she really fell in love with cooking. It’s what eventually sent her to the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, where she graduated and, after an internship at Chateau Elan and taking some time off to spend with her children, got a job at Spout Springs School of Enrichment.
“I followed my kids into the school system,” said Huss, the nutrition manager at Spout Springs. “So I’ve been here for 10 years.”
With her background and culinary degree, Huss decided to become a member of the Georgia School Nutrition Association, which offers professional services and training to its membership of school food service employees across the state. Huss said the more she got involved with it, the more fun things she realized went along with it.
One of those was a culinary competition she entered last year and this year. In this year’s competition, Huss advanced to the state level to compete against 26 other school food service employees.
“We’re here to support all their activities and give them opportunities to advance their skills,” said Ann Hamner, the culinary arts committee chair with the association. “So we have webinars, training opportunities, and we have a yearly state conference and a national conference.”
Each year, the competition has categories for the contestants to choose from. This year, the choices were blueberry and peach cobbler crunch or crisps, lunch in a cup or breakfast flatbread. Huss chose to make a Mexican-style lunch in a cup.
“It was all served in a grab-and-go style, so that the cup could be an entire meal,” Huss said.
It was a layered dish with mashed potatoes on the bottom. She added taco meat next, using turkey to make it a little leaner. Then she added cheese and cilantro and topped it with Fritos.
After coming up with the dish, she had to submit a recipe serving 100 that also met specific nutrition requirements. And after advancing from the local and district competitions, she had to make her lunch in a cup for three judges at Helms College in Macon.
It was simple dish, but she knew the students she serves would love it. And that’s what it was all about. She wanted to make sure the dish she made was adaptable and realistic for a school lunchroom.
Huss said some contestants had more elaborate dishes, though.
“If they judge like an elementary school child, as something that is easily adapted to a school menu, I believe I have a very good chance (of winning),” Huss said. “If they were going based on adult flavor preferences and it’s prettiness, somebody else could have easily won because there were some beautiful dishes.”
Hamner said the competition was stiff, and the contestants were all vying for the prize money, ranging from $100 to $250, and were looking forward to the possibility of having their recipe published for schools across the state to use.
But what was truly important to her, and the reason they have the competition in the first place, was to bring the school food service employees together to thank them and let them have a little fun after all of their hard work.
“Hungry kids can’t learn,” Hamner said. “These people are up early and at the school preparing before the kids are even out of bed. And without that, the kids would not be able to learn.”
The winners for the competition will be announced at the organization’s Annual Conference in Savannah on April 12-14.