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Celebrating the winners of Best School Cook 2023 competition and creative contest for schoolchildren in Dushanbe

On November 11, the UN WFP and SIFI held the final part of the Best School Cook 2023 competition and awarded the schoolchildren who participated in a creative competition to honor the WFP's 60th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of its activity in Tajikistan. The event took place at Yu. Gagarin Russian-Tajik School in Dushanbe.

The Best School Cook: how it all began

Held in 2022 for the first time, the Best School Cook competition received plenty of positive feedback from participants, jury members, and officials. The competition provides an opportunity for school chefs from all over the country to express themselves, demonstrate and improve their culinary skills, and gain valuable experience in cooking school meals.

The second competition was announced in June 2023. Applications were accepted from the cooks working in schools embraced by the UN WFP School Feeding Programme. 42 participants made it to the semi-finals to fulfill the jury's tasks and cook school meals. The semi-final events were held in school canteens in each region of the country. As a result, one cook from each of the five regions reached the finals: Zikrullo Nosirshoev (GBAO), Ikromjon Khakimov (Sughd region), Mokhinav Sharipova (DRS), Dilorom Karimova (Kulob region), and Gulbarg Nazarova (Bokhtar region).

On the day of the finals, the cooks gathered in the spacious kitchen of the school canteen at 7 am to present their homework - signature dishes that meet strict criteria. The cooks had to develop a recipe costing no more than 15 somoni for 1 serving, use only locally produced ingredients, offer beautiful food plating, and explain why the dish should be included in the school menu.

Several hours later, when the guests arrived, the finals of the Best School Cook 2023 competition officially kicked off. Staff scientist of the Republican Center of the Nutrition Institute at the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, Matluba Khabibulloeva, Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Tajikistan, Dilshod Safardoza, WFP Representative and Country Director in Tajikistan, Adham Musallam, and Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy in Tajikistan, Vera Khutorskaya, delivered welcoming remarks.

Mr. Musallam noted that both competitions are held as part of the School Feeding Programme, the largest UN WFP project in Tajikistan. “It became possible to provide schoolchildren with hot meals every day thanks to the efforts of about 5,060 cooks and their assistants. They arrive at work early in the morning to prepare delicious and nutritious meals, allowing the children to focus on their studies. We are grateful for their labor and believe that their contribution to the development of education should be given the ringing endorsement.”

“It is important to praise the work of school cooks. We always respect teachers for their dedication, but it is not often that we hear words of gratitude addressed to the workers of school canteens. Nonetheless, they make a huge contribution to the schools because well-fed children feel good and learn better,” Vera Khutorskaya said.

After the official part, the heroes of the day had to draw out sealed envelopes with tasks, each containing three recipes from the School Meals Recipe Book developed by the SIFI and WFP: a hot dish, a salad, and a drink. The preparation time was 1 hour and 20 minutes. Participants had to stay within the allotted time and work on the design of the dishes before serving. The culinary battle has started!

Ikromjon Khakimov from the Sughd region was cooking pumpkin soup. “I often cook this dish at our school. I have been working as a cook since 2000 and have gained a lot of experience preparing various dishes. However, I never imagined that I, a person from the most distant village of the Kanibadam district, would make it to the finals. The competition was exciting. I am confident that every school cook would be happy to participate. I will do my best in the finals to achieve excellent results.”

Creative competition for schoolchildren

While the chefs were making their dishes, the guests and students of the Yu. Gagarin school were invited to see the best works presented for the creative competition: clay crafts, knitted fruits, paper and playdough crafts, and various types of paintings. More than 300 children from grades 1 to 11 from schools which joined the UN WFP School Feeding Programme participated.

The competition aimed to raise awareness about the basics of healthy eating among schoolchildren and help them search for new creative ideas and self-expression. It has become a tool for promoting healthy lifestyle concept. While working on their drawings and crafts, the children immersed themselves in the world of healthy products and searched for additional information. Thus, many of them managed to “make friends” with healthy eating in order to pick healthy foods for their diet.

The works were assessed according to age groups, each of which had its own theme:

Grades 1-4: “Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow.”

Grades 5-8: “Saving Lives, Changing Lives”, dedicated to the work of WFP and SIFI in Tajikistan.

Grades 9-11: “What we do for a world without hunger.”

The jury included representatives of the Artists’ Union of Tajikistan, UN WFP, and SIFI. The winners received backpacks with creative artist kits, diplomas, a cash prize of $100, and sports equipment for schools (balls, jump ropes, rackets, board games).

Amira, Maryam, Fariz, and Alexey - 3rd grade children from the Yu. Gagarin school - assessed the winners' works. Amira liked the picture of a cook with children, Maryam highlighted knitted fruits, Fariz preferred a flag made using the quilling technique (from many sheets of paper). “I also liked the picture with the cook and the clay vase,” Alexey added.

The awarding of the winners - three primary school children, three middle school children, and five high school children – was accompanied by outbursts of applause and photographs.

Nozia Mahamadzoda, a 10th-grade student, became one of the winners: “I drew a planet with pencils and markers, and children of different nations around it. The edges are decorated with pictures of healthy foods: fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. To realize my idea, I studied the work of the World Food Programme across the globe and specifically in Tajikistan.”

Nurafzo, another winner, is not accustomed to the particular attention: “I am happy to have won the competition, and I am happy to be here now. Even though I was sick, I still came with my mother because I didn’t want to miss such an important day for me.”

Best School Cook: selecting the winner

Time passed quickly. The chefs' dishes were ready. Every participant presented a full set of soup, a main course, salad, and a drink. Still, the finalists had to answer quiz questions about the school canteen policies: what clothes should a school cook wear when preparing dishes, what are the hygiene and sanitation rules, what safety precautions are essential and how many grams should a portion for a school children weigh.

Afterward, the cooks presented their dishes to the jury, schoolchildren, and all interested guests. Everyone could taste, assess, and express their opinion. The assortment amazed with the variety of tasty and healthy options: fruit starch jelly, compote, salads, shurpo soup with pumpkin and meat, shurpo with cabbage, and cutlets.

The children, who taste tested the dishes, said which of them they would like to see in the school canteen. Some liked the soup, others preferred cutlets. Usmon from grade 3 liked the salad: “I liked the salad with carrots, cucumbers, corn, and herbs the most. I’ll ask my mother to make the same at home.” The children thanked the cooks, which was very touching, and the cooks smiled and were happy that their prominent judges - children - highly appreciated their work.

After the jury assessed the dishes, the winner was chosen. Dilorom Karimova from the Kulob region was named the Best School Cook of Tajikistan in 2023. The other finalists ranked as follows:

2nd place — Ikromjon Khakimov (Sughd region);

3rd place — Gulbarg Nazarova (Bokhtar region);

4th place — Mokhinav Sharipova (DRS);

5th place — Zikrullo Nosirshoev (GBAO).

Each cook received an individual prize - a certificate for the purchase of household appliances (in the amount of 1 to 5 thousand somoni), a medal, a diploma, a set of kitchenware for their school (pots, knives, graters, skimmers, thermal pots for hot water). The winner also received the cup of the competition.

Dilorom Karimova could not find the right words and manage her emotions for a long time: “As joy overfills me, it’s hard to describe my feelings. I was confident of my professionalism and wanted to win, but I still didn’t expect my name to be announced. I’ve been working as a cook for 23 years, but despite my extensive experience, I try to cook better and better for the kids every day.”

Nutrition expert Matluba Khabibulloeva, a jury member, spoke proudly of the finalists and other participating cooks.

“As part of the semi-finals, we traveled to all regions of the republic and assessed the quality of the dishes. All the chefs we worked with are self-taught, but they strive to improve their skills. They bring joy to children by cooking dishes from the School Meals Recipe Book developed by the SIFI and WFP. They also have their signature recipes,” she said.

Today, for instance, we saw a particular type of turnip that does not grow in other areas, and none of the jury members have tasted it before. But in Garm, soups have been made from it since ancient times. Another cook made cutlets from buckwheat and potatoes. At first, no one realized that there was no meat in them. By the way, the children really liked the cutlets. The cooks of this school, who also watched the competition finals, said they would like to include these dishes in their menu. All the cooks used a creative approach, and all the dishes were delicious. I did not doubt that the children would like it.

Even though the cooks are self-taught, they understand what healthy nutrition is and do not use flavor enhancers in their dishes but only natural products like fruits and vegetables from school gardens. We have a technologist who, together with her team, does not stop training school cooks,” she said.

The event has come to an end. Happy schoolchildren ran to share their emotions with their friends, and the cooks took a break after the storm of emotions while the WFP and SIFI representatives continued their work to improve school feeding in Tajikistan.