Nine-year-old Lahav Ardi loves to cook for other people, but his vegetable lentil soup recipe served him up an incredible chance to go to the White House and attend the first Kids' State Dinner.
Well, technically, it was a lunch, but the Aug. 20 event was hosted by Michelle Obama, whose husband, President Barack Obama, made a surprise appearance to the astonishment of 54 young chefs and their parents.
"It was unbelievable," Lahav said.
The contest that Lahav entered, the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge for kids ages 8-12, is part of Michelle Obama's campaign Let's Move!, which has the mission to fight childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyle choices among youth.
Lahav, who is a fourth-grader at Oakridge Elementary, said he was absolutely shocked to win.
"It was totally unexpected, but yay!" he said.
Although he had a low expectation regarding the contest, he said his soup not only pleases in taste but works like magic.
"Every time someone has it, they feel fine in 24 hours," he said.
His winning recipe includes barley, lentil, carrot, potatoes and "a lot of things." He first made it as a chicken soup but decided to change it up to accommodate his mom's and his own vegetarian friends.
Lahav's recipe was chosen from 1,200 entries submitted nationally and evaluated by a team of judges including White House chefs. As part of the experience, the winning contestants got a driving tour of Washington, D.C., and a tour of Julia Child's kitchen, among other things.
They also were able to explore the White House garden. Lahav thought the famous D.C. residence was grand.
"I knew it was going to be big, but I didn't know it was going to be that big," he said. "It seemed like the garden was about the size of my grandma's but kind of bigger."
Despite the surprisingly small garden ground, Lahav said he enjoyed the variety of vegetables and fruits growing there.
"Honestly, I was surprised they had fig trees," he said. "There was a mini pumpkin. It was small, but it had all those ripples like on a pumpkin."
Lahav has been cooking since a very young age. He found it hard to describe what it is exactly that entices him to cook.
"I don't know why," he said. "It just feels like, you know, it's destined to happen."
He relishes the relaxing part of cooking, but like a true chef at any age, he faces the challenge of stress in the kitchen.
"You don't know if it's going to taste right and if people will like it or if they won't," he said. "If something might explode, like the lid pops off of the pot."
At the White House luncheon, the Obamas congratulated the kids on their efforts not just to cook healthy food but to share what they make with families and friends.
Cooking healthy and organic food is ingrained in Lahav. His mom said he learned at a young age to cultivate the basic components of what might eventually end up on his plate.
"We've always had a garden; I have one, and my mother had one," Anita Ardi said. "Lahav is involved in planting, growing, eating healthy and making good choices."
The lentil soup is a special recipe because Lahav made it for his mom when she was feeling sick.
"It was cute," she said. "Any time someone gets sick, now his idea is to make soup."
Mother and child consulted about what recipe to turn in, but the choice was ultimately left to Lahav. Anita said she's proud of her son for stepping up and doing something he believes in.
"It's kind of hard to put into words," she said. "There's a time when as a parent you're so ridiculously choked up."
Aside from the vegetable lentil soup, Lahav has another favorite recipe that he was eager to share, his citrus salmon.
"You marinate [the salmon] for 15 minutes with some parsley and some cilantro, orange juice, lime juice," he said. "Put it in the pan for about seven minutes, three on one side and four on the other."
Although he feels strongly about cooking, there are numerous jobs he said he would consider as well, his top choice being professional basketball player.
Jan Roberts, third-grade teacher at Oakridge Elementary, described Lahav as driven and interested in everything in addition to being an interesting person himself.
"Lahav is a firecracker as a student," she said. "He has a personality that oozes out of his pores."
When she found out he'd won the healthy recipe contest, Roberts said she couldn't wait to congratulate him.
"It was an amazing opportunity," she said. "I was so thrilled and excited for him."
O A cookbook of all the winning recipes can be downloaded by going to www.letsmove.gov and searching for "healthy lunchtime challenge."