WASHINGTON — Fielding questions in a hotel courtyard, Cody Vasquez has the composed, mature nature of someone twice his age.
But when the Gilbert 12-year-old begins to talk about food, his whole face lights up as he struggles to keep his hands and feet still.
Vasquez, who started cooking when he was 4, makes time to cook every day, whether it’s preparing a meal for his family or spending time in the kitchen at his parent’s restaurant.
That passion earned him an invitation to the White House, where he will be one of 54 young chefs Friday taking part in a kids’ state dinner hosted by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move!” initiative.
Vasquez, a Quartz Hill Elementary sixth-grader, said he’s excited about the dinner and hopes to meet the president. But it’s always been a dream of his to meet the first lady.
“I’m really excited about meeting her,” Cody said. “I’ll probably be speechless.”
The dinner is the culmination of the annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a national contest sponsored by Mrs. Obama that honors one kid from each state and four territories for their original, healthy lunch recipe.
Vasquez was picked as Arizona’s representative for his “Shrimp Tacos and Watermelon Jicama Salad” recipe. He said he was amazed when his parents told him that he had won the contest.
“I was super excited.”
He said he came up with the idea for the recipe after getting a watermelon from a local farmer’s market and being challenged by his mom to not to let it go to waste.
After experimenting with watermelon popsicles, and eating a lot of the fruit by itself, Cody started adding ingredients until he eventually came up with the salad.
For a healthy cooking advocate such as Mrs. Obama, Vasquez knew his dish needed more protein, so he added the tacos “to make you feel full,” he said.
Making the tacos was as easy as “a little bit of lime, a little bit of cumin, and a little bit of chili powder.”
Contestants are required to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s myplate.gov nutritional guidelines when creating their dishes. That wasn’t hard for Vasquez, who said that making healthy food is important to him. The healthy ingredients are the reason his dish “tastes really good,” he said.
When he isn’t cooking, he’s baking: Vasquez enjoys making spaghetti and meatballs just as much as he does pies.
“I always say they’re not the same thing, because I feel different when I’m cooking than when I’m baking,” he said.
This year’s contest drew approximately 1,500 entrants, ranging in age from 8 to 12. Among some of the winning dishes were quinoa lentil burgers with kale slaw from Massachusetts, sunrise Tuscan chicken from Ohio and chia chicken pitas from Virginia.
Vasquez said he is looking forward to meeting other kids who enjoy cooking just as much as he does.
He hopes that all of his hard work and dedication to cooking will pay off someday, and maybe he’ll be “a Food Network star” when he grows up.
And if that doesn’t work out, “just a chef in a restaurant” will be fine, he said.