By Isabella Gentile, Republican-American
NAUGATUCK — Meatball dippers combined with dough used for breadsticks earned an elementary school student a spot as a finalist in a national cooking competition.
Nine-year-old Callie Walkuski’s “favorite lunch meal reimagined” led to her landing a spot in the Sodexo Future Chefs competition, an annual contest that’s put on by the global food service provider, which is based in France. Walkuski was one of five national finalists chosen from 66 winners of regional competitions across the country.
She was inspired to use the dipper recipe because of her Italian roots and love for meatball subs, one of her favorite lunches at Western Elementary School. She prepared turkey meatballs and arranged them on skewers combined with Pillsbury breadsticks — the bread acted as a base for the meatballs so they could be dipped into marinara sauce.
Walkuski won the district-level competition on March 10 at Naugatuck High School. Five fourth-graders from the district competed in that round, each assembling their dishes with the help of an adult partner.
When the round was over and students’ names were announced, Walkuski initially had no idea she won. Her mom, Cindy, said the runner-ups were listed first, so Callie thought she hadn’t won. When she finally realized she was the winner, she couldn’t believe it.
“I looked at my mom and my mom said ‘you won, you won,’ and I was just shocked,” Walkuski said.
Contestants were required to make a presentation plate and an additional 50 sampling portions for the event guests and four judges. Kate Murphy, food service director for the school district, is in charge of the local competition and said Walkuski won by a close margin.
Murphy submitted Walkuski’s recipe to Sodexo after the March competition, but as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Walkuski family did not hear about the national results until the middle of May when they received an email with the news.
“(Callie’s) whole demeanor changed. She was super excited,” her mother said. “We’re very proud. It was really exciting — the whole experience.”
When she found out she was a national finalist, Walkuski said she was really happy.
Callie’s father, Alex, attributed her competitive nature to sports and added she had a strong support system throughout her entire experience, with her parents, grandparents and friends cheering her on.
Brenda Goodrich, principal at Western Elementary School, described Walkuski as a soft-spoken leader who is friendly and competitive. She enjoyed cheering her on during the competition and said the event empowers students to be creative, cook and eat healthy.
Walkuski missed out on having her winning meal served as a lunch option to the entire school, as the day had to be canceled after schools closed for the year. Goodrich said she will work with food services to make this lunch happen, so Walkuski’s friends can hopefully look forward to enjoying her meatball dippers in the fall.