The nervous excitement was tangible as the fizzing finalists set up their kitchen spaces at the 2019 National Finals of the Rabobank Root to Tip cooking competition. After weeks of practice, 12 teams of primary school students from across New Zealand had travelled to Weltec in Wellington, to cook for some of New Zealand’s top food judges and try for the title at the 2019 Rabobank Root to Tip competition.

A true masterclass of how to make the most of fresh New Zealand food, the Garden to Table-led contest, held at Weltec in Wellington on Friday 23rd August, was the chance for 12 teams of primary school students in Years 5 and 6 from the length and breadth of New Zealand to show what they could do with fresh, seasonal and locally-sourced ingredients, leaving little or no waste at the end.

Handmade ravioli, volcanic vege roast, butternut crisps, kumara “bangy burgers”, vegetable masala and fresh dumplings; apple bombs, creamy rhubarb and kiwifruit ice cream, and self-saucing beetroot chocolate puddings were among the 24 dishes dreamed up by the primary school students who had travelled from Northland to Southland for the competition.

Judge Al Brown, with fellow judges Garden to Table co-founder Catherine Bell, Jacob Brown from Wellington’s The Larder and Rabobank Marketing and Communications manager Paul Cording, were treated to an incredible standard of food, as dish after dish of mouth-watering plates were brought for them to investigate, try and score.

After several lively discussions around textures, flavours, seasonality and creativity, the judges had the unenviable job of picking a winning team. It came down to half a point in the end, with Tsion Medhane and Rebecca Zhu, from Holy Cross School in Wellington, named as the winners. Al Brown described their dishes, Cheesy Green Risotto, followed by Creamy Rhubarb and Kiwifruit Ice Cream with a hint of Lemon, as ‘fantastic’.

“We had our work cut out for us picking a winner this year,” says Al Brown. “There were two other teams – Hawea Flat School in Otago, and Te Mata School in Hawke’s Bay, who both came within half a point of the winners, but we simply couldn’t fault that risotto. They also used every part of the produce, from stems to leaves, which is what this competition is about.”

Al says it’s time New Zealanders stopped thinking that only certain parts of the product are ‘the best’ bits – the tips of the broccoli, the rack from the lamb. Because in doing so, we’re missing out on some amazing flavours.

“To me, the inside of a broccoli stem is the best bit!” he says. “That’s what Garden to Table is about, and that’s why I like it so much – it’s about teaching kids an understanding of where food comes from; creating, growing and harvesting what they cook, and eating together around a table. It’s a great alternative way to learn, too; I struggled in a traditional classroom with studies like maths equations, but if I was given a 1kg pumpkin and told to divide it into four – that made a lot more sense to me. It’s a different way of learning.”

Since winning the regional heats earlier this month, the teams from across New Zealand have been practicing their dishes every chance they got – and their dedication was clear. “Technically, some of the dishes we saw today were incredible for kids as young as nine,” says judge Jacob Brown. “I found it really inspirational. We’re a community-based restaurant, and seeing this competition has given me the drive to go back to my own community to see if we can make that connection with the restaurant.”

“As we’ve seen today with the amazing standard of food these kids have produced, the Rabobank Root to Tip competition is really inspiring the next generation of cooks and environmentalists,” says Linda Taylor, Executive Officer at the Garden to Table Trust. “Events like this wouldn”t be possible for our charity without the support of organisations like Rabobank.”

The competition is a perfect pairing for agribusiness specialists Rabobank, whose focus is on supporting the farming and growing industries that are such an integral part of the New Zealand economy. “This is the second year we’ve been involved, and the quality gets better each time,” says Rabobank Marketing and Communications Manager Paul Cording. “It’s very easy to forget that these kids are only nine or ten! Despite the competition’s focus on zero food waste, the teams created incredible dishes.”

Globally, our food wastage statistics are dreadful: one third of all the world’s food is wasted. “It’s a very big issue – especially considering it’s estimated the world will have an extra 2 billion mouths to feed by 2050,” says Paul Cording. “The Rabobank Root to Tip competition is our chance to put the spotlight on food waste, and show that there are ways to reduce it.”

“We seriously need to look at our food waste,” agrees judge Jacob Brown. “We need to be encouraged to recycle much more than we do now. The amount of packaging we currently use certainly needs to be addressed. It’s possible to re-purpose, recycle and reuse far more than we do now. That’s why I love the Rabobank Root to Tip concept – it teaches the kids to value what they have and be mindful of what they throw away.”

Jennifer Elliott, Waste Minimisation Manager for Wellington City Council, was tasked with measuring the edible and non-edible food waste at the end, which counted towards teams’ overall marks. “I saw a huge level of understanding today from students who tailored their dishes so they could use every aspect of the product – it was really exciting to see,” she says. “It’s inevitable there will be some waste that humans can’t eat, but at the competition final, the teams had worked out how to repurpose that, for compost and in worm farms. Nothing was going to landfill. That’s incredible.”

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