Johnson seniors get creative in cooking contest

Johnson seniors, left to right, Yeng Yang and Va Yang are adapting a Hmong dish to be a possible school lunch offering. (Marjorie Otto/Review)

The high school seniors have been working on their beef laab recipe since mid-January. Below, the ingredients, which also include brown rice, are measured before being mixed together into a salad. (Marjorie Otto photos/Review)

Seniors Yeng Yang and Va Yang are working to change what they and their classmates eat for lunch at Johnson High School.

The two students are participating in the nationwide culinary contest called Cooking up Change. 

The contest is designed to have high school students create healthy, affordable meals that could be prepared in a public school kitchen following USDA guidelines. 

“It’s a good opportunity for us to put our input into something that actually matters to us,” Va said.

This is her third year, and Yeng’s second in the competition. 

The students can only use ingredients their school cafeteria would purchase, and they can only use utensils that are already in place in the school kitchens.

“We didn’t have a food processor so we had to use a rolling pin to roll out our brown rice to get brown rice powder,” Va said.

The cost of the main entree must be $1.25 or less. It must be between 750-850 calories and it must include one vegetable, one fruit, one grain, and two to three ounces of protein. The seniors included a spinach salad and a banana to go with their beef laab dish. 

This year’s competition is focused on cultural dishes and how they can be incorporated into a public school hot lunch program.

To fulfill the requirements for this year’s competition, Yeng Yang and Va Yeng decided to make beef laab, a popular Hmong recipe that uses ground meat.

Yeng and Va said beef laab is similar to a salad. 

“They wanted something culturally influenced, so I thought of this dish because at home I always make it with my dad, and it was the first thing that came to mind,” said Va. 

The seniors have had to get creative with the recipe in order to maintain the original flavor while using ingredients the school’s cafeteria staff would be able to purchase.

Yeng said one of the toughest challenges has been finding substitute ingredients in the school’s kitchen for Hmong ingredients. 

“So we have to adapt our dish to the school’s kitchen’s ingredients,” said Yeng. 

“It’s an adaptation,” said Johnson culinary instructor Stephanie Love.

The seniors said they had to swap cabbage for spinach, salt for soy sauce, and they were not able to use fish sauce, green onions, or lemongrass, which gives laab salad its notable flavor. 

Love said the seniors had to do a lot of experimenting to find a combination to match the lemongrass flavor.

Cooking up Change is a national competition, with teams from St.Paul, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Orange County and Wichita invited to participate. There is also a team competing from Harding Senior High. 

The St. Paul teams will compete with each other on March 4. Whichever team wins from St. Paul will advance to the national competition in Washington, D.C., in June. 

To prepare for the competition, Yeng and Va planned to ask their classmates to taste-test their meals to see if other students would actually like eating it.

While both seniors said they enjoy cooking, they have different plans for their future careers.

“I think of cooking as a side hobby,” said Yeng. She said she has been accepted to the University of Minnesota and would like to be study fashion design.

“My passion lies in environment science,” Va said. She plans to go to college, but is not sure where yet.

“Knowing how to cook is essential to life. It’s like life skills,” Va said. 


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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