Here’s the ‘dill’ – Ishita Verma is Cal’s MasterChef

Junior wins three-day student cooking competition to claim title


Sydney Cicchitto

Junior Daphne So prepares one of her dishes during Cal High’s MasterChef, a three-day student cooking competition.

Sydney Cicchitto, Staff Writer

Look out, Gordon Ramsay. Four Cal High student-chefs are coming for you.

Four up-and-coming student chefs recently participated in Cal’s MasterChef, a three-day elimination-based student cooking competition the school has hosted the past two years. And boy were they impressive.

“Seeing young people cook really really good food is inspiring to me, as a chef and as a teacher,” said culinary arts teacher Brian Hampton, who served as one of the judges. “They inspired me that I can teach my students in culinary arts to take that next step because their peers are able to do that themselves.”

This year, MasterChef’s menu criteria were that meals must be holiday-themed and pescatarian. The participants were required to bring their own ingredients to the culinary arts classroom, where the chefs battled for glory from Dec. 8-10. 

After judges devoured three delicious dishes from each chef, junior Ishita Verma was crowned Cal’s MasterChef on Dec. 16. Her competition included senior Anna Iliaieva, freshman Amanda Sanchez, and junior Daphne So,who is The Californian’s co-features editor. 

Verma earned 286 out of 300 points at the end of all three days and won a $50 voucher to Bed Bath & Beyond to purchase anything related to the culinary arts. Her strategy in this competition was different from others. She sang songs to keep her going.

“You will learn everything from cooking sometimes.You will learn new things and that will make you better,” Verma said. “You are getting the skill in your hand. Learning and learning more and getting better each day.”

The competition began with chefs having 45 minutes to make an appetizer. Each dish could receive 30 total points from each of the four judges: 10 points for presentation of the dish, 10 points for taste, five points for creativity, and five points for execution.

Iliaieva cooked deviled eggs with a Russian beet salad, while So made stuffed mushrooms, Sanchez baked cranberry brie bites with homemade cranberry sauce, and Verma whipped up potatoes with ginger tea

“[The appetizer day] was very surprising because I never made what I made before,” Iliaieva said. “My mom has always made it.”

The next day the chefs had one hour to prepare an entrée. This was librarian Lori Mitchell’s favorite day serving as judge. She was joined by Hampton and science teacher Tyler Richman at the judge’s table. The trio was helped on the last day of the competition by math teacher Janice Saiki. 

“We really were blown away by the creativity in the food,” Mitchell said. “By the second day we were like ‘Oh my gosh can they top the appetizers?’ and they topped it!”

For Iliaieva’s main dish she made cauliflower mushroom pasta. 

“I wanted to try something with mushrooms because I never made anything with mushrooms before,” Iliaieva said.

Sanchez’s main dish was lasagna roll-ups. She described the dish as a lasagna noodle with ricotta filling and a vegetarian marinara sauce. She then rolled it up, put it in the oven, then served it with tomato feta salad.

Sanchez said her inspiration for her meals and passion for cooking comes from her parents. She has always wanted to help out in the kitchen and has been able to experiment with it more as she has gotten older. Her idea for this dish came from her mom and aunt. 

“[My mom] always makes lasagna for Christmas,” Sanchez said. “The appetizer, I had it last year. My aunt made it and it was really good.”

So made soba noodles with anchovy soy sauce broth and sesame noodles. 

“The broth was really well seasoned,” Richman said about So’s dish. “I am a big noodle and broth person.”

Verma cooked lentils with a lot of spices accompanied by flatbread made from wheat flour, yogurt with mint leaves, and a coriander garnish. 

“I am making a whole Indian dinner,” Verma said during the competition. 

Verma said that she has been cooking for five years now and has four cooking certificates from her school in India. 

The judges wanted to go back to enjoy every dish later on.

We were not giving up our food,” Hampton said. “We wanted to eat it all.” 

The meal for the last day of the MasterChef competition was dessert, which chefs had one hour to prepare. Iliaieva made strawberry cream puffs. 

“I made things I wanted to eat,” Iliaieva said. 

Sanchez’s dessert was gingerbread cupcakes with cream cheese frosting topped off with a gingerbread cookie.

“Gingerbread is super fun to have around the holidays,” Sanchez said.

So baked a caramelized honey pumpkin pie.

“It tasted really good, the flavor and crust was really good,” Saiki said of So’s dish.

Verma made fruit custard and a mango smoothie with nuts sprinkled on top. 

“When I cook for people and they taste it and they like it and when they are happy that is my credit,” Verma said. “I feel so great to see them happy.” 

After the competition the judges were impressed. 

“These students were knocking it out of the park,” Mitchell said. “I would have gone to any restaurant and paid for every single one of the dishes and not batted an eye. That is how good it was.”

Cal’s MasterChef was introduced virtually last year, after learning about the event from Dougherty Valley High’s leadership program. 

“We like to be collaborative with other leadership classes,” said senior Catherine Casserly, who helped organize the event. “ We talked to SRV leadership, Monte Vista leadership, Dougherty leadership about things that have gone well for them, things that might go well for us.”

Iliaieva participated in MasterChef last year during online school and won one of the food categories. 

“This year is way more hands-on,” Iliaieva said. “I like all the kitchen space because last year I did it at home. This year we get people to actually taste our food.” 

The judges and contestants are excited about Cal High’s next MasterChef. 

“We even tried to convince them [the leadership committee] if you want to do this every semester or every month let me know I am going to be here,” Mitchell said.

Sanchez was excited to participate in MasterChef because she loves to cook and bake but has never done it in a competition before. 

“I really like MasterChef,” Sanchez said. “It is fun competing with other people and everyone is so supportive of each other.”