Young local chef vies for Incredible opportunity

Jul. 16—All things considered, Bakersfield teen Aliah Maness had a lot to take away from 2020. Tie-dyeing, one of her favorite pastimes, enjoyed a resurgence, and she entered a cooking contest that culminates in a final cook-off on Monday.

The 13-year-old will compete against two other young chefs for the title of John’s Incredible Kids Cook-Off champion along with a $5,000 prize and a chance to create a unique dish for the John’s Incredible Pizza Co. chain.

This is the third annual cooking contest for the West Coast chain of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants/entertainment centers, although the pandemic delayed the process last year.

More than 100 children ages 7 to 12 entered the contest in spring 2020, sending in a video of themselves showing off their cooking skills by preparing an original dish and explaining why they want to be a chef.

For her video, Aliah made her “chips of chocolate cookies” that, based on the name, might make you think a special type of chocolate is used, but the secret is in the baking not the ingredient.

“No, they’re chocolate chips,” she said. “Whenever I would make them, my family would just call them that.”

Her mom, Janet, said Aliah has been active in the kitchen since she was about 8, mastering and moving beyond the Easy-Bake Oven.

“She would make her own recipes,” Maness said. “They would sell the boxes with mixes for the oven, but she said, ‘I think i can make my own and make more.'”

Aliah said she has expanded her repertoire for both savory and sweet but she prefers the latter.

“I like to cook all types of food but I usually tend to make really good desserts.”

The contestants were narrowed down to a pool of more than 50 semi-finalists, who went on to prepare a second dish in a virtual presentation last month.

From there, Aliah and Simon, 13, of Roseville and Sanabel, 11, of Montclair were selected as finalists.

The trio will compete in person at 1 p.m. Monday at the John’s Incredible Pizza in Carson (506 Carson Town Center North), about three hours south of Bakersfield.

Their dishes will be judged by John’s Incredible Pizza Company owner and founder John Parlet, a guest judge from John’s senior operations team and chef Joe Youkhan, a champion of Food Network’s “Chopped” and Cooking Channel’s “Fire Masters.”

Guests are invited to cheer on the kid chefs while enjoying a meal and fun during their visit. IncrediBear, John’s fuzzy mascot, will be there to share in the festivities and help crown the winner.

Aliah is ready for the competition. As a long-distance runner, who also plays other sports, and recently named Lavender Pageant princess (from the festival held at the Lavender Garden near Lost Hills), she knows she’s ready.

Her mom does too.

“I don’t think I ever doubted her moving on (in the competition) because she just has this passion for whatever she does, working 10 times harder than anyone else,” Maness said.

The young chef is mum on the details of her competition dish — “You’ll have to wait and see” — but did say she put in hours in the kitchen for development. (She also plans on wearing a tie-dyed shirt for luck.)

“I’ve always had this recipe but I’ve been perfecting it a bit,” Aliah said.” Once I was selected, I wanted it to be the best dish I could make it to be.”

Along with bragging rights and $5,000, the winner will be able to work with John’s culinary team to develop a dish to add to the buffet. It may be an adaptation of the winning dish or something new and creative.

The special dish is offered for a limited time but, depending on customer response, can remain longer on the menu. The bacon mac and cheese from 2019 Kids Cook-Off champion Grace is still served at the restaurants.

With fond memories of going to the restaurant with her siblings — “Ever since we were little, we would have these parties and go to John’s Incredible Pizza” — Aliah said she would be thrilled to have her dish on the menu.

“I think that’s crazy. My mind would be blown if that would happen.”

Win or lose, the teenager said she still sees baking in her future. While her plan is to become a pediatrician, she would also like to own her own business.

“I would also like to have a bakery so I can cook on the side.”

For more on the contest, visit johnspizza.com/kidscookfinals. The winner will be announced on the chain’s social media (facebook.com/JohnsIncrediblePizzaCompany, @IncrediPizza on Twitter and Instagram) next week.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.

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