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Island Coast sizzles at taco cook-off in downtown Fort Myers

By Staff | Oct 18, 2019

More than 200 guests came out to show their support and sample tasty tacos from some of the top culinary high school programs in county as Lee County Schools went head-to-head in the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Lee Chapter’s 2nd Annual Taco Cook-Off Tuesday at the Burroughs Home & Gardens.

This year’s winner of the Taco Cook-Off was Island Coast High School, which took both the Fan Favorite and the Culinary Champion awards. This was the school’s first year competing in the competition. They wowed the judges with their blackened chicken taco, which won first place.

According to Francy Johnson, the culinary teacher at Island Coast High School, careful planning and fresh, harvested ingredients went into this year’s culinary creation.

“Our school has a huge hydroponics program where we are able to raise tilapia. The water from the tilapia goes through a filtration system and fertilizes the soil to our garden. The kids actually went out and harvested the romaine, lettuces and other ingredients such as tomatillo for us, so we have fresh ingredients today. We also took time to experiment with different seasonings. Each class came up with their best blackened seasoning and then we chose the best one for the competition,” Johnson said.

Johnson used her own experience cooking with seasonings from the Middle East to help the students come up with an eclectic array of side dishes.

“I use to live in the Middle East so I shared those flavors with the kids and they really loved it. So we incorporated a Middle Eastern side with the tomatillo salsa, which is popular in Mexico, and matched it with a Cajun blackened chicken from New Orleans. We tried to do a little taste of the world,” Johnson explained.

Alejandro Cavazos and Isabelle Barnes were just two students competing on Island Coast’s culinary team. Island Coast students also included Ka’Asia Padmore, Jasmine Hernandez, Domingo Giron and Kaylyn Dunn.

“We are really excited to be here. It’s been a great experience,” Alejandro Cavazos and Isabelle Barnes agreed.

Other schools competing included Estero High School, Oasis High School, Lehigh Senior High School, Cape Coral Technical College, Fort Myers Technical College and East Lee County High School.

For East Lee culinary students and their instructor Chef Phillips, it’s their second year entering the competition and highlights the creativity students put into a craft they worked all year to perfect.

“It’s just amazing. Very fun to be here. I love it! You’re dealing with patrons like in the real workplace. I want to open my own restaurant and bakery someday, so this is good experience. I also got certified in restaurant management,” student Samantha Motley said.

According to Lois Croft, the Southwest Regional director for the event’s creator, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the event is two-fold.

“Our association’s primary mission is to protect, educate and promote Florida’s hospitality industry which makes up a large segment of Southwest Florida’s economy,” Croft said.

The event’s celebrity judges panel included ABC-7 News’ Simone Cuccurullo, Guy Clarke, James Fraser, FOX 4’s Lisa Greenberg, Chef Jay Johnson, Norman Love and Chef Joe Pittman.

The event was also made possible by a list of sponsors including Florida Gulf Coast University, The Zenith, FPL, The Westin Cape Coral Resort and many more.

Other local sponsors, such as Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon and Fort Myers Brewing Co., supplied beverages and their bartending services to lend to the event’s success.

“We are excited to be here and raising money for a good cause. Happy to be brewing here in the area and we are currently planning a 40,000-square-foot expansion project,” Fort Myers Brewing Company sales rep. Sarah Maclennan said.

All of the competing schools split the proceeds from the event, which goes towards Lee County’s ProStart programs, contributing to student scholarships, classroom supplies and equipment as well as state competitions.

For more information on Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association visit frla.org/