Town gets cooking for WOHS Principal’s Scholarship Fund

Things heat up as community raises scholarship money

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The heat was on in the West Orange High School Cafeteria on Friday, Nov. 18, as the West Orange High School Principal’s Scholarship Fund hosted its MasterChef Competition, with all proceeds going toward scholarships for graduating seniors.

The five-judge panel for the competition included WOHS culinary teacher Derrick Gagner, professional chef Jesse Jones, Carl Hawkins, Leslie Fleisher and Juan Landaverde, the owner of Don Juan’s Restaurant in West Orange.

Five teams competed for the top title. Participating were: West Orange Fire Chief Peter Smeraldo; Deputy Fire Chief Daniel Shelley; fire Capt. Steven Hywel; firefighter Jonathan Jenkins; Paul Casolaro Jr.; WOHS teachers Lew Kelly and Catherine Connors; guidance counselor Anna D’Elia; supervisor of consumer science Nancy Mullin; WOHS students Jewel Burnett, Keishawn Johnson, Anabel Pierre and Jalex Green; Washington Elementary School Principal Marie DeMaio; former student Zimer Reeds; and community members, parents and coaches Brad Palent, Sal Anderton, Warren Tranquada, Lee Klein, Marci Echeverria, Meryl Dorf and Robin Miller.

The chefs were tasked with creating a three-course meal — appetizer, main course and dessert —in one hour. As a special bonus, attendees were entered into a raffle to be named one of five “judge’s assistants” and were able to sample the meals and rate the teams.

Debi Zarro, an administrative assistant at the high school who also served as the event chairwoman, said the competition has generated a lot of buzz since its inception five years ago.

“The event started because I did a lot of fundraising for the school district through the PTA when my own children were still in school, and (Principal Hayden) Moore asked me to come up with ideas for something that we could do to raise money,” Zarro said in a recent interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “I reached out to other people on the PTA and other committees and we formed the Principal’s Scholarship Fund; we have raised almost $20,000 and issued almost $15,000 to students. This past graduation year we awarded 10 $500 scholarships to students.”

Zarro said the idea for a culinary competition was inspired by her love for cooking shows and by a successful culinary competition that had previously taken place in town.

“We wanted to have something different and the town had this event once before — similar but not with full teams like this one,” she said. “I was trying to find a way to make a community event, so our judges all have some kind of culinary experience or own a business in town. Then we asked for five (high school) seniors who are interested in culinary (careers) in the future and pulled in community members, parents, teachers, police, firemen. And that’s how the teams grew and we tried to keep it balanced. After the first event, I had many people reaching out to me asking when we were doing it again and how to be involved. This is the second year doing it, because it is done every other year, and the scholarship fund tries to do two events a year to raise money.”

For WOHS science teacher Catherine Connors, the opportunity to be involved in the event for a second time came as a chance to cook on a team, rather than as a judge.

“I enjoy cooking, and last time I was a judge, but this year I will be cooking for the first time. I think my job is a little harder this time because I have to do more than sit and eat,” she said in a phone interview with the Chronicle prior to the event. “I like the Principal’s Scholarship Fund because of what it supports, and that is that the average student can get a scholarship and go to school. They aren’t the students at the top of the class, but they still want to go to college and we’re able to help them do that with the money we raise.”

Mother and daughter Joy and Jewel Burnett are both fans of the competition — Joy, for the increased confidence she sees in her child, and Jewel for the free food and opportunity to meet new people.

“Jewel has taken all of the (cooking) classes at the high school and she cooks more at home now; if there is a night that I am running late she actually she can make dinner for the family. Taking the courses has built her confidence that she can put together a meal without any assistance,” Joy Burnett said in a recent phone interview with the Chronicle. “This is her second year competing, after doing it last time, she couldn’t wait to do it again. This year she was on a team with Washington Elementary School Principal Marie Demaio, and she was able to work with leaders in the district and other parents, and she felt like she was an asset and had something to offer. She felt like she was a valuable part of the team.”

For Jewel Burnett, the opportunity to participate in the competition is one she has enjoyed; she said she would encourage any student thinking about participating to go ahead and take the plunge.

“I’ve been taking culinary courses my sophomore through senior years and, when I did the competition last time, I had more elementary tasks like toasting bread, but this year I was cooking steak and doing more complex tasks,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I think my word of advice is to just go ahead and do it. It’s worth it, it’s fun and you end up meeting new people in the district. Also, you get a free meal in the beginning so you can’t go wrong.”

“The MasterChef fundraiser as part of Principal’s Scholarship Fund is very important to me because it gives our kids a chance to pursue their educational goals and give them a little bit of a financial boost in the form of books, tuition money, or even travel,” Moore told the Chronicle. “Our scholarship tries to provide students with opportunities wherever we can to help them and aid in their progression of school. I’m proud of the competition, and glad to be a part of it, I’m glad to help organize it and it is something that I wanted to do upon my inception of being the principal five years ago and we have been raising money for the past five years strong.”

Photos by Shanee Frazier