You can’t go wrong when you mix kids and pizza.

That’s exactly what the Child Life team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Nutrition Services at Spectrum Health did when they gave kiddos the opportunity to make their dream pizzas.

Three lucky patients worked one-on-one with local chefs to put their culinary imaginations to the test.

The Balk Café, which routinely plates some of the hospital’s best pizza, supplied the aspiring chefs with a variety of toppings and pizza crusts. The resulting pizza creations would then be judged by a panel of celebrity judges, with the winning pizza available for purchase in the Balk Café for the week of Aug. 10.

Enter local chefs and their child prodigies one by one.

Pizza #1: A fruit pizza dubbed “Michigan’s Best”

Mercy Kent, a patient from the Lansing area, came to town with her family for the day in hopes of winning the challenge and creating a pizza that would win over the judge’s taste buds.

A girl with a plan, Mercy entered the kitchen with her pizza already planned out.

“I’m going to make a breakfast pizza with cream cheese and fruit,” she said while putting on her apron and meeting Chef Kevin VanderMeer, owner of KJ Catering.

The duo lined the crust with a cream cheese base and then added fresh Michigan apples and blueberries. Then came some pineapple and chocolate chips to top it off.

“Remember, not every pizza is perfect,” said Chef Kevin as he pinched the dough along the edges to make the crust just right.

They placed the pizza in the oven for just a few minutes. A caramel drizzle finished the pizza as it’s pulled hot and fresh from the oven.

Chef Kevin showed Mercy the proper way to hold a pizza cutter to best slice a pizza.

Mercy fed her family the first few slices for an initial reaction.

“I think it needs more caramel and blueberries,” Mercy said, but her family seemed to absolutely love the creation.

Mercy’s mom, Davina, sang high praise for the hospital and specifically the Child Life team.

“One of the things I truly love about this hospital is their ability to connect with kids and families,” she said. “It’s always so pleasant here. I will drive all the way from Lansing to be here if I know any one of my children need anything.”

Chef Kevin enjoyed himself, too.

“It’s been an awesome morning,” he said. “It makes me feel good to see these kids smile…even if it’s behind a mask.”

Pizza #2: A unique breakfast pizza with a twist

Simon Hurst, a patient from the Midland area, came to the event with some impressive cooking experience under his belt. His mom, Katie, says Simon has smoked a brisket, made homemade ramen and even tried his hand at sushi.

Simon teamed up with Chef Jeremy Paquin, executive chef for the Essence Restaurant Group, which includes local favorites like Bistro Bella Vita and The Green Well.

“I think I’ve got a winner in Simon,” Chef Jeremy said. “He’s already got a game plan in place. He’s thinking breakfast pizza, and you can’t go wrong with breakfast.”

“I have been making breakfast pizzas at home,” Simon said. “I like eggs, spinach and veggies. But I think bacon is my favorite ingredient for the day.”

Simon and Chef Jeremy laid down some classic marinara sauce, followed by scrambled eggs, cheese, onion, bacon and roasted red peppers. Knowing that Simon has an allergy to gluten, the duo went with a gluten-free crust and topped the pizza with some Cheerios for an extra crunch.

A few minutes in the pizza oven and it’s ready for Katie’s review and approval.

“I haven’t been to a restaurant in months. I feel kind of fancy,” Katie said as they dined in the middle of the Balk Café with not another guest in sight. “The Cheerio addition is kind of cool. It gives it a bit of honey taste and a crunch.”

Simon loves to cook so much that he and his mom have been talking about this as a career choice someday.

“The opportunity to come and work with a real chef was really exciting,” Katie said. “Especially during the COVID restrictions, this was so much fun and something new and different to do.”

Pizza #3: Gluten free s’mores with strawberries

Eleven-year-old Clare Westerlund felt lucky to be paired with local celebrity chef Jenna Arcidiacono, owner of Amore Trattoria Italiana, to help create her dream pizza. The two immediately hit it off and started marinating on ideas of how to win this epic competition.

“I’ve seen everything you can imagine in a pizza, so I’m going to be interested to see what the kid chefs choose,” Chef Jenna said as she walked in to meet Clare.

Chef Jenna’s restaurant focuses on traditional Italian cuisine, and she travels to Italy twice a year on culinary trips to cook with some of the best chefs in the world.

“We could all use a pick-me-up right now,” she said. “What’s more fun than being able to cook with young minds? Cooking is a life skill, and if we teach these kids just a little bit about cooking today, that’s great.”

Clare has gluten allergies, too, so they brainstormed how to create a s’mores pizza while remaining gluten free.

“I love sugar so much,” Clare exclaimed. “My mom has to keep it out of the house so I don’t eat it so much.”

Chef Jenna and Clare started out with a sauce made from peanut butter, chocolate and cream cheese. After spreading it atop the crust, they garnished with mini marshmallows before cooking to brown them up, just like a s’more. Then came the final touches of fresh strawberry slices, chocolate chips and crushed Cheerio garnish.

Clare’s mom, Ashley, said Clare has been incredibly excited about this.

“Clare has always wanted to be on a cooking show, so this is really like a dream come true for her,” she said.

And the winner is…

Fast forward an hour or so as the celebrity judges arrived. Judges included Maranda from WOOD TV-8, George Aquino from AHC Hospitality, and Chyna Pettey from the Child Life team.

The three pizzas were presented one by one. The judges added commentary as they indulged in the decadent creations.

“This is definitely a breakfast pizza, or early morning pizza,” George Aquino noted as he tasted Simon’s breakfast pizza.

“I’m a Cheerios person, so this is my pizza,” Maranda added.

In the end everyone became a winner thanks to AHC Hospitality giving each family an overnight stay at one of their hotels. But only one pizza could go home with the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Culinary Challenge pizza paddle.

The judges agreed it was a tough competition, and all three pizzas are restaurant worthy, but Pizza No. 3 – S’mores with strawberries – was their favorite and would take home first place.

Clare’s S’mores with Strawberries pizza will be available for purchase in the Balk Café the week of Aug. 10 with a portion of the pizza’s sales benefiting the hospital.

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