FORT SILL, Okla. (April 20, 2018) -- Julissa Rocha, age 11, said she likes to cook with her parents. She took her enjoyment of cooking to compete in a national food contest: Sodexo's 8th Annual Future Chefs Challenge. Julissa's Asian chicken lettuce wrap and tofu caprese skewers entry was selected as one of five semifinal dishes.

"Lettuce wraps are probably my favorite food," Julissa said. "I really like this recipe, so I decided to make it."

Julissa is a military child and a fifth-grader at Pioneer Park Elementary School in Lawton. She is the daughter of Sgt. 1st Class George and Mira Rocha. Sergeant Rocha works at Headquarters, Fires Center of Excellence, as a culinary specialist.

"It's very exciting," George said of his daughter's achievement.

"We have been eating chicken lettuce wraps the past week, so she can practice," he said, explaining how Julissa was preparing for a video shoot as the final part of the challenge.

Julissa competed against thousands of other elementary school children to reach the semi-finals, said Steve Dyer, Sodexo general manager for child nutrition at Lawton Public Schools (LPS).

First, she competed locally against about 26 other LPS students. This was one of the 256 local events that took place in 30 states representing over 1,300 Sodexo-served school sites, according to a Sodexo news release.

Six local judges selected Julissa's entry as one of the 256 finalists, Dyer said. A panel of Sodexo executive chefs narrowed that down to the top 40. A panel of vendor representatives selected the five semi-finalists.

This year's competition had an Asian cuisine theme and children were encouraged to use healthy foods, Dyer said. Although he wasn't a judge, Dyer sampled Julissa's entry.

"It tasted really good and it had a lot of ingredients," he said. "I was impressed with the recipe."

Dyer said no Oklahoma student has ever won the national title, and Julissa is only the second student from the state to become a semi-finalist.

"About five years ago, a student also from Pioneer Park made the semifinals," he said.

At the local competition, the children were provided an assistant chef to help the competitors with cutting vegetables, measuring ingredients and setting out plates.

Martha Doolin, Pat Henry Elementary School cafeteria manager, assisted Julissa.

"She was wonderful to work with: very bright, very pleasant," Doolin said. "Just a really nice young lady."

Sergeant Rocha said Julissa just naturally gravitated toward the kitchen when Mira and he cooked.

"She would come in and ask what we were doing, then she would just help out," he said.

The Rocha's other child, Christian, 16, doesn't share the family passion for cooking, George said.

"He stays in his room with his X-box until it's time to eat," George said. "Of course, we make him clean the dishes."

Julissa again prepared her meal April 16, at the John Shoemaker Educational Center, for an LPS video crew. The three-minute video showed her preparing her dish step-by-step.

Sodexo will post the video at https://sodexoinsights.com. The public can view and vote for their choice of the winning dish from April 23-29.

During the taping, Julissa was assisted by Jacqueline Fields, Sodexo Oklahoma Area executive chef. She said Sodexo wants to get children interested in nutrition.

"We really try to get students to think about the healthy aspect of cooking," she said. "As they get involved in cooking they can expand on it as they grow up."

For the challenge, safety in the kitchen is stressed, but the emphasis is on have fun, Fields said.

Julissa said the videotaping went well.

"I was a little nervous, but eventually I got it down and was able to do it," she said.

Julissa said many of her classmates didn't know she cooked. When she told her friends she was one of the semifinalists they were surprised.

She said children should try cooking because it's a lot of fun.

"If kids would give it a try, they might find that they like it."