Gabby Malkomes watches with excitement as her mother, Luciana, sets out pots and pans.
It's time to cook. Gabby, though not old enough to do the actual cooking herself, loves working with her mother to concoct something delicious in the kitchen.
And it seems, the rest of America loves the results as well. Gabby and Luciana are finalists in the Uncle Ben's Beginners Cooking Competition. Winners have the potential to win $15,000 for the family and $30,000 for a school cafeteria makeover.
But for Gabby and Luciana, the best part is sharing this experience together.
Gabby is a 5-year-old special needs student with Down Syndrome. She is in kindergarten at Martha Reid Elementary School.
"I love photography and I've always taken many pictures of trips, cooking, family, basically everything," Luciana said. "Because of that I love Instagram, and I'm a very active user. I use it to post lots of pictures and interact with friends, companies, brands, etc.
"Last year I saw for the first time on Uncle Ben's Instagram a post about their Ben's Beginners contest. I got very excited because Gabby loves to help me to cook and play cooking, but unfortunately at that time she wasn't eligible to enter because she was attending Pre-K and kids must be Kindergarten to eighth grade to take part in the contest. So, I thought, if they keep making this, I can enter next year."
Well, they did, and they did. Anxious and with kitchen utensils ready, Gabby and her mom hit the kitchen and not only competed, they qualified for the finals. Winners will be announced Dec. 11.
"It's fun to cook together," an excited Gabby said through a face full of smiles.
Gabby and her mom created eight recipes, using Uncle Ben products, of course. The first phase of the contest lasted just over a month and garnered around 500 entries, Luciana said.
From there, 25 finalists were selected.
"I'm really excited about this opportunity to win this huge prize for the school and for my family," Luciana said.
"It's incredible how this company has been impacting the families, communities and schools across the country."
Luciana cited some statistics from the contests first few years that include:
▪ Almost 3,000 youngsters have entered.
▪ More than 12,500 students have benefited by their school cafeteria makeovers.
▪ $270,000 has been awarded to winners of the cooking contest.
▪ $580,000 has been given to help schools across the country.
▪ They promoted 67,400 interactive cooking lessons.
▪ 2,546 families have participated in "Cook With Your Kids" events they promoted.
"Those numbers don't include this year, because they released them on the first day they announced the contest," she said.
In the kitchen, it's like Christmas morning to Gabby. With each ingredient her mom shows her, she shouts out its name.
"Corn! Beans!," she said loudly.
Then, when asked what she likes to eat, she smiled and said with enthusiasm, "Rice!"
Then, when Luciana pulls out another vegetable, Gabby doesn't wait to be asked, she shouts out, "Onion!"
"Are we having fun?" Luciana asks.
"We're having fun!" Gabby responds.
"I'm excited she can do the different things and recognize the different things," Luciana said, adding with a little grin, "There could be a little bit of natural talent there.
"She's excited and really enjoying all of this."
Gabby helps with the mixing and organizing the ingredients. She's too young to cook by herself, but the final dishes certainly have her touch.
"She's right there with me, putting it all together," Luciana said.
Their dish for the finals was peanut butter and rice flan with caramel on top.
"It is delicious," Luciana said.
Luciana said along with having fun, she sees some long-term positive effects for Gabby. After all, she said, someday she will have to fend for herself.
"Her school is planning a culinary club, so maybe next year she'll have this at school more often," Luciana said. "She's really smart. She'll learn how to live independently someday, and cooking will be a big part of her life. I won't always be there.
"She loves music, dancing, singing. She can do so many things, but she definitely loves cooking."
Since the contest is open to youngsters through the eighth grade, Luciana is already thinking about entering again in the future.
"The idea is to bring families together, cooking healthy dishes, having fun together," she said. "This gives children motivation, a chance to grow.
"The smile on her face is the best part of it all."