Look Who's Cookin'!
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Stan Hays is used to nerve-wracking situations. As co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief, the nonprofit organization that deploys volunteer barbecuers to cook and serve meals in communities that have suffered natural disasters, he’s witnessed destruction, desperation and heartache.
As a contestant on the Food Network TV show “Chopped Grill Masters” in 2015, he felt the pressure of grilling under the stopwatch and the camera’s spotlight (he won the first round, and finished second out of 16, overall). As pitmaster for the competitive team County Line Smokers, he’s had butterflies in his stomach and sweat on his brow while slow-cooking the perfect brisket, ribs, pork and chicken to present for judging.
But nothing could prepare him for the angst he felt while standing on the sidelines watching his two young children compete on the Food Network show, “Kid Chef Nation – Kids Grilling Invitational.”
“I was over-the-top proud,” he says, “but not being able to help or coach them made me way more nervous than I’ve ever been, even when I was competing on TV myself.”
Like their dad, the Hays kids – Nathan, age 13, and Anna, age 11 – love to grill and barbecue. They are already seasoned in the ways of smoke, sear and spice, and possess grill skills far beyond what many adults have mastered. So it was not entirely a surprise that, after answering a casting call and auditioning via Skype, the two were selected to appear on the first episode of “Kid Chef Nation,” a new show on the Food Network.
|L to R: Nathan, Stan, Anna and Amy Hays.|
“The producers liked the idea of sibling rivalry, with brother and sister competing against each other,” says Stan.
The episode was filmed last November during the Kids Grilling Invitational at the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama. The World Food Championships, billed as the world’s largest “food sport” competition, has launched the careers of some 30 television food stars, and the seven youngsters competing in this contest were hoping they might be next.
The competition was stiff: five of the children, including the Hays kids, had barbecue cook-off experience; one child won a recipe contest and had cooked for former First Lady Michelle Obama; and one had previously won a cooking competition.
Before the big event, Nathan and Anna spent many hours in the backyard being coached by their dad, and mom Amy Hays, honing their skills, practicing techniques, and testing new recipes.The backyard practice sessions pit “the boys” against “the girls,” and featured much speculation about which ingredients might be included in the “mystery basket” they would face in the first of the two rounds.
“We looked at all the sponsors of the contest and the fact that the location was by the Gulf of Mexico, so we figured shrimp might be a basket ingredient,” says Nathan, a seventh-grader, who also plays baseball and runs track.Their hunch was correct. Gulf shrimp, along with sour cream, zucchini, and oranges were in the “mystery basket,” and the kids had to think on their feet to come up with a dish that featured all of them. (They were allowed to supplement with additional ingredients selected from a pantry of staples.)
|At far right is a mystery basket of ingredients next to Nathan. He is preparing, and excited.|
The Barbecue Battle
For Nathan’s first-round dish, he grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp and jalapeño, glazed with the juice of the orange, mixed with jalapeño jelly and honey. He presented the grilled shrimp with a side of grilled zucchini and new potatoes that were stacked with garlic-laced sour cream between the layers.
The flavor-packed creation was a riff on dishes he had perfected at home. “I make a great bacon-wrapped shrimp with a sliver of jalapeño and a pineapple-jalapeño glaze, so it was easy to substitute the orange in the glaze instead of pineapple,” says Nathan.“With the sour cream, I thought of the potatoes we do every year for a crawfish boil where I smash them and put roasted garlic on them.So, I thought, ‘sour cream goes with potatoes, so I’ll smash them and put it on top.’
“Adding the grilled zucchini just seemed easy to do, so I did that. I added garlic to the sour cream to kick it up some.” The complex dish landed Nathan tied for first place after the initial round.
|For Nathan’s first-round dish, he grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp and jalapeño, glazed with the juice of the orange, mixed with jalapeño jelly and honey. He presented the grilled shrimp with a side of grilled zucchini and new potatoes that were stacked with garlic-laced sour cream between the layers.|
However, for his sister, despite a bastion of good luck charms, including a stuffed bunny, a favorite teddy bear, and a doll wearing a matching apron, all lined up on the counter of her work station for moral support, things didn’t go as well. Unfortunately, Anna’s creative and artistically-presented dish of grilled zucchini topped with grilled shrimp and a dollop of a sour cream-and-avocado crema, was missing one of the mandatory ingredients – orange.
She had remembered to squeeze the juice while prepping, but in the pressure-cooker frenzy of grilling and plating, forgot to use it to glaze her shrimp. As a result, Anna found herself in last place after the first round.
|Anna hard at work.|
“She was so upset,” says Stan. “We were told we couldn’t coach the kids, so I couldn’t bring it to her attention. But when Anna was struggling to get everything on the plate and missed her ingredient, you could see the anguish on her face – and mine.”
“The mystery basket was hard because I didn’t know what to do,” recalls Anna, a fifth-grader who has been grilling since age five and also loves ballet, jazz and tap dancing. “But I have been grilling shrimp and zucchini for a couple years now, and while I was practicing, I made an avocado-sour cream sauce, so when I saw the sour cream I was ready to make that.I wish I didn’t forget the orange, or I would have done better.”
After a little break to dry the tears and regroup, the contestants moved on to the final round, a “Signature Dish” made from their choice of ingredients. Nathan went with grilled rib-eye steak, bacon-wrapped asparagus, and a scallop on a grilled lemon slice. “I grill steak and asparagus a lot, so I was comfortable with it,” he says. “But I cooked scallops for only the first time the day before we left for the show.”
“Scallops are tricky, and it’s easy to go from being undercooked to overcooked in seconds, but he really nailed them,” says Stan. “And he took it upon himself to grill lemon and use it as the base for the scallop, which made the flavor and presentation so much better.”
For her signature dish, Anna nailed a grilled center-cut pork chop with grilled apples, grilled Brussels sprouts, and a salad. “Nathan does steak, but I am the pork chop cooker in the family,” says Anna.“I like to have apples with my pork chop and I love Brussel sprouts, so I cook them a lot.”
|Rusty Hamlin one of the judges for the Kids Grilling Invitational, in front of “Cookie,” his mobile kitchen for the Zac Brown Band.|
This time, both Anna and her brother were feeling pretty positive when they presented their dishes to the panel of judges: Chef Rusty Hamlin, chef for the Zac Brown Band and its pre-concert “Eat and Greet” fan dinners; Brad Orrison, co-owner of The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint with three locations in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; and two Food Network veterans, Nancy Manlove and Emily Ellyn.
When the total combined points were tallied for both rounds, Nathan snagged the top spot as champion of the first Kids Grilling Invitational, earning him bragging rights, a trophy, and an engraved barbecue tool set. Anna placed sixth and, according to her dad, might have finished third or fourth, if not for the slip-up with the orange.
With time to reflect, Nathan says cooking on a gas grill was one of the most challenging aspects of the competition – he prefers charcoal – but he thoroughly enjoyed being part of a television show. For Anna, the best part of the whole experience was traveling with her family and meeting all the new people at the competition.
Both kids agreed, the toughest thing was keeping the outcome a secret from their friends and classmates until the episode aired. “We couldn’t say anything for five months and that was hard to do,” says Nathan. When the show finally debuted, Anna reports that her friends “were really nice when they saw I missed the orange.”
|Nathan snagged the top spot as champion of the first Kids Grilling Invitational, earning him bragging rights, a trophy, and an engraved barbecue tool set.|
The Hays kids also are following in their parents’ philanthropic footsteps. Amy serves as Missouri State Lead for Operation BBQ Relief (OBR), and was recently recognized by the Emergency manager for Wyandotte County, Missouri, for her service and passion to the community. Stan won the Donna H. Myers Barbecue Leadership Award in 2016 for his work with Operation BBQ Relief.
Nathan went on his first OBR deployment this year after an EF2 tornado hit the small town of Goodman, Missouri, population 1,250. “The town wasn’t completely devastated, but the elementary school took a direct hit and was a total loss,” says Hays. “Nathan, Amy, and I worked with others from Operation BBQ Relief and the Salvation Army to serve 1,500 meals over four days. It had a big impact on Nathan. He gets it now.”
The teen posted updates from the disaster site to OBR supporters on the group’s Facebook page. “I never realized how powerful a tornado could be,” he said. Anna is eager to assist on a deployment, too, but her dad says she’s still a bit young. In the meantime, she’s an eager helper at OBR fundraising events.
Shortly after filming last year, one of the judges on the show, Rusty Hamlin, teamed with OBR on a relief effort in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, after massive fires destroyed much of the community there. The celebrity chef brought “Cookie” – the mobile kitchen he uses to tour with the Zac Brown Band – and worked with OBR volunteers to cook and serve meals to first responders and displaced residents.
Whether or not the Hays kids extend their 15 minutes of fame remains to be seen. They have already responded to a casting call for another kids barbecue show on the Food Network, and may consider others.
“This was the third show I auditioned for and I would tell kids, if they want to do a show like this, they cannot give up!” says Nathan. “Never give up if it’s a dream you have.” (That’s a good lesson, no matter one’s age.) As for Anna, she’s not ruling out future television opportunities either. “But Nathan better watch out next time. I’m going to get him,” she says.
OBR has served more than one million meals in 21 states in the aftermath of tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters. For information on Operation BBQ Relief and how you can volunteer or donate, visit www.operationbbqrelief.org.