HARLEM — Cakes, cookies, and Twinkies used to be daily menu items for Quinton Harper, a high school student at Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School. But since he began participating in his school's Teen Battle Chef team, he says he's lost around 10 pounds and now appreciates foods he used to think were disgusting.
"I love guacamole now," he told the audience at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture on Wednesday. "I used to not be so hot on guacamole."
Similar tales of reformed food attitudes and healthier eating habits were as abundant as the pre-show free kale samples in the lobby. And when TV personality and heart disease awareness campaigner Star Jones dropped in to host the cooking contest and raise awareness about youth obesity, she brought a few celebrity friends in her wake.
Former Gov. David Paterson, and celebrity chefs Roblé and Walter Hinds were present as judges at Harlem's first Teen Battle Chef competition on Wednesday, hosted by Jones, and presented by EmblemHealth, The Links Incorporated, and Family Cook Productions.
The battle was the brainchild of former New York first lady Michelle Paige, who has worked with the insurance company EmblemHealth for more than seven years. She said that in communities of color, the obesity epidemic is a larger threat than elsewhere.
"I think it's one in three kids [in the broader community] will become overweight or obese," she said. "In communities of color it's one in two. So we wanted to do something around teaching kids how to cook and eat healthy."
Paige said she met Lynn Fredericks, the founder of Family Cook Productions, a year ago, and after seeing a Teen Battle Chef competition in Brooklyn, Paige decided she wanted to bring the program to Harlem.
The Teen Battle Chef classes, currently an extra-curricular activity at Thurgood Marshall Academy, Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School, and Northside Child Development Center, teaches kids how to read food labels and provides information about the obesity epidemic and juvenile diabetes.
Ashley Pina, 18, a senior at Bread & Roses, who was on team "Black Eyed Peas and Collard Greens," says she's the oldest of five siblings, and has to help her mom cook a lot.
"Because my kitchen consists mainly of Goya products, this competition taught me how to be a bit healthier," Pina said, who said she and her mom used to cook mostly rice, beans, pork chops, and chicken.
"I was really closed-minded about food," she continued. "I shied away from anything out of my zone. Now I have a love for all different kinds of food."
While the two teams, the "Black Eyed Peas" and their competition, "Kenyan Style Mixed Greens," prepared to cook downstairs, the audience arrived upstairs, and the celebrity guests along with it.
Star Jones shared the story of her weight struggles and gastric bypass surgery with the audience, saying that at her heaviest, she weighed 307 pounds, but when the doctors told her she needed surgery, she "buried her head in the sand."
"I want to encourage people to start eating healthy and eliminate the risk of heart disease and diabetes," she told DNAinfo New York. "So when Michelle [Paige] asked me to get involved I was happy to do it."
But in an audience of mostly normal-sized people, with teenagers who are clearly active in their school communities on display, wasn't all this talk about education and making healthy choices just preaching to the choir?
Dr. William Gillespie, a pediatrician and EmblemHealth's chief medical officer, didn't think so.
"There is an issue of obesity here in Harlem," he said. "And to have people come to support the community and support the kids, it gives them an opportunity to see what's possible from a healthy eating point of view, and maybe they'll go home and try some of these same things. We're giving them the recipes [used in the competition]. We're talking about healthy eating. And all these people can go home and make the choice to do a healthier approach to their nutrition."
In the end both teams won — "Black Eyed Peas" for food artistry and "Kenyan Style Mixed Greens" for audience popularity.