On June 2nd we invited 10 world-class chefs from around the country to try their hand at creating school lunches within the USDA nutrition guidelines and our $1.25 budget! Proceeds from this event went back to the New London Child Nutrition Program to continue the development of our program. Check out what these chefs came up with here: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/19/world-class-chefs-competed-to-make-meals-for-less-than-2.html
The inaugural school year for Brigaid is now in the books! This past year has been an amazing experience for everyone involved and a reminder of how much impact an engaged community can have in a short period of time. Over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, Brigaid chefs and their school staff served over 800,000 (!) meals to New London students, and we look forward to serving many more in the years to come.
As always, we are still looking for talented chefs to join our growing team. To apply, please send your resume to email@example.com.
Below is a snapshot of some of the things we’ve got cooking:
- Brigaid helps raise $110,000 for the New London Education Foundation’s Last Dollar Scholarship program
- Our Brigaid chefs are staging at some of the best restaurants in the country this summer
- Brigaid makes the menu at In Situ, Corey Lee’s new restaurant in the San Francisco MOMA
Brigaid helps raise $110,000 for the NLEF Last Dollar Scholarship program
A few weeks ago, some of the world’s most renowned chefs, from Jacques Pépin to René Redzepi, spent an evening cooking for guests at Stone Acres Farm in Stonington, CT, all to support the New London Education Foundation’s Last Dollar Scholarship program. Organized and hosted by the Brigaid team with the help of many local leaders, this fundraiser was able to raise $110k (after costs) for the foundation, enough to send 24 New London students to college through this scholarship program.
On why Brigaid organized the event, founder Dan Giusti, said that “beyond the impact we have in the cafeteria, we want to help them further. We want to help send them to college.”
See what our Brigaid chefs are up to this summer
With founder Dan Giusti’s connection to the world of higher gastronomy, we have pushed our Brigaid chefs to relentlessly improve their craft. In addition to rolling out a brand new menu for the summer program in New London, and as part of Brigaid’s professional development offering, a number of our chefs will be staging and working at some of the best restaurants in the country this summer.
Chef Wesley Barrington, the head chef at Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School, spent a week at The Progress and State Bird Provisions (both restaurants earning a Michelin star) in San Francisco earlier this summer.
Chef Ryan Kennedy, the head chef at New London High School, worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY, which was recently named the 11th best restaurant in the world.
Chef Tyler Guerin, the head chef at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School, will be working at SingleThread Farms in Healdsburg, CA, which earned an unprecedented four star review in the San Francisco Chronicle in its first review.
Chef April Kindt, the head chef at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, will be at Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen and work under the critically-acclaimed chef, Jeremy Fox.
Last, Chef Angeline Chiang from Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School will be at the James Beard Award-winning Blackberry Farm in Townsend, TN.
Brigaid makes the menu at In Situ
Our food is now art! Brigaid’s BBQ chicken lunch, which we have been serving throughout the year in each of our New London schools, has made the menu at Corey Lee’s newest project, In Situ, located inside of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In keeping with the museum’s theme of showcasing art from around the world, In Situ pays homage the chefs from around the world, featuring a rotating menu of dishes directly inspired by the likes of David Kinch’s Manresa, Albert Adrià’s Tickets, and now, Brigaid.
Brigaid’s featured dish, BBQ chicken served alongside cornbread, red potato salad, and baked apples, is available all summer to kids aged 12 and under. Even better, for every BBQ chicken meal served, $1 is donated to the New London Community Meal Center.
There was a point in his life where he thought he was going to quit cooking. Now, he’s the Brigaid chef at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London, CT. But to better understand where he
is now, it’s important to go back to see how he got lost and then found himself.
Tyler Guerin, 24, was born in South Berwick, Maine. Tyler’s father, after working 20-plus years as a chef, decided to buy and take over a local restaurant, The Oar House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. From that point on, food became a constant in Tyler’s life.
At 10 years old, Tyler started helping out at the family restaurant, first by cleaning out the coolers. By the time he was 13, he was hosting the thousands of people who flocked to the New England waters in the summer. Then in his high school years, he, along with his friends, spent winters and summers cooking classic New England fare day in and day out.
After graduating high school and eight years working at the family restaurant, Tyler wanted a change. Knowing that he never enjoyed formal education, he packed his bags and spent a gap year in New Zealand to figure out what he wanted his next steps to be. During his trip, he joined a bus tour with 11 other people from all over the world. This curious bus tour became one of the defining experiences in Tyler’s life. Despite language and cultural barriers, Tyler found cooking to be the sure-fire way to connect with everyone. He became the chef who prepared the food for the entire trip, and it was at that point, he recognized both the power of food to connect people and his own knowledge of and skills in cooking. He set out then to make cooking his career.
After only a couple years in the restaurant industry, Tyler built up an impressive résumé working at some of the most popular restaurants in the northeast, including Arrows Restaurant in Maine, Earth at Hidden Pond, and Toro in Boston, MA.
He credits Justin Walker, now the executive chef at Earth at Hidden Pond, for a large part of his career development, showing him the wide range of things one could do with food and connecting him to the popular restaurant, Toro in Boston.
At 21, Tyler confidently set out to add to his culinary toolkit. He moved to San Francisco to do a trial at Chris Cosentino’s Cockscomb. Then, out of nowhere, he hit a wall. After years of success (which were by no means easy as Tyler recalls throwing up frequently before he went into work at Earth from nerves and stress), he figured that, in his own words, he “would be able to just do [his] thing.”
It was the first time in Tyler’s young cooking career when he felt that he just wasn’t good enough. He stopped cooking. He took the summer off and, instead, started working for a family friend’s fencing company.
As you might expect, this didn’t last long. After two months, he itched to get back into the kitchen. And this itch came with a newfound determination to become the best. That coupled with Tyler’s own desire to work in Copenhagen’s booming restaurant scene, he set his sights on Bror, a highly-regarded restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. Six weeks after his first conversation with the restaurant, he was in Copenhagen and ready to work.
A highly intense kitchen environment, Bror became the perfect testing ground to see if Tyler had recovered from his previous struggle in San Francisco. And he did. He came to embrace challenges and adopted the attitude that he was not going to let anything stop him; instead, he would exhaust everything he had to succeed. It paid off. He was given more and more responsibility at the restaurant, and by the time he was set to return to the U.S., he was ready to take the next step.
During his time at Bror, Tyler had heard about Dan Giusti and Dan’s plans for after leaving Noma. And after finishing at Bror, Tyler sent Dan an email, not expecting a response. However, after several stages (restaurant term for internships), Tyler heard back from Dan and drove up to New London for a trial.
But, he didn’t get the job.
“I was devastated,” Tyler says. He knew he had the necessary cooking skills, but he also knew his age hurt him.
But unlike before, he didn’t give up. He took a job as a cook in September to work under chef Ryan Kennedy at New London High School. Looking back, Tyler says he “needed every single second [at the high school.]” He saw firsthand that school cooking was a whole different animal. Under Ryan, he learned about management and honed the skills to cook for 800 people in 90 minutes, which is the volume that the high school requires.
After two months as a cook, Tyler became the chef at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School. When asked about why he was so dead set on becoming a chef with Brigaid, he talked about how Brigaid strikes the perfect balance of ambitiously cooking good food, having a personal life, and having a real, positive impact on the community. To him, Brigaid epitomizes what cooking is all about: feeding people and forging connections through food.
It’s been eight months since I left high-end dining: truffles and foie gras, dry aged meat and fancy finishing salts. People are still asking me why I left and when I will be back. I don’t blame them. If you asked me a year ago, I would have said the same thing. Leave the limelight of the restaurant industry, where even mediocre chefs are treated like celebrities, to become a lunch lady? That’s career suicide!
I was good at my job—successful and respected—but the day-to-day of the restaurant world no longer provided the fulfillment I needed. Joining Brigaid was a huge risk. It was a startup company, in the failing industry of school food, where there are countless rules, government regulations and very little money and resources. Looking back, I think that was part of the appeal for me. Never one to shy away from challenges, I took a leap of faith and left crystal and china for melamine and compostable flatware. As one of seven sisters raised by a single mother, no one is more well suited for creating something special out of very little, but nothing could have prepared me for this.
In a lot of ways, our school kitchens are similar to the restaurant kitchens we came from. We obsess over cleanliness, organization and high quality products. We train and develop cooks. We scrutinize knife cuts and technique. We still work long days that often start before the sun comes up, and bring the paperwork we didn’t finish home with us at night. We develop and test recipes over and over….and over. At a base level, our goal is the same—cook and serve high quality, delicious food that pleases our guests and keeps them coming back over and over again, while maintaining financially successful food and labor costs. Stepping back, our goals couldn’t be more different. We used to measure success in diamonds and stars and hope to be nominated for a James Beard Award. Now we measure success in meal participation percentages and student feedback and we are cooking to change the world.
With less than 60 days left of the school year, I see the reward of the risk I took. I see it in the kitchen team that has trusted me, endured the extra work and embraced the challenges. I see it in the members of the community of New London, who have welcomed us, rooted for us and who show up to the community dinner every Wednesday night to support us. Most importantly I see it in the faces of the 696 students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, who wish I would stop trying to make them eat Kale, but take a bite anyway because they know that I’m really listening, that all I think about is their lunch and that every single thing I do is for them.
The time I spend with these students shows me that, at the core of my love for food and cooking, the thing I care about most is the very simple act of feeding and caring for people. Finding purpose in your work is an amazing feeling. I encourage you to look at your own work and ask yourself why you do it. The answer may surprise you, and could quite possibly change your life.
April Kindt is the head chef at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
I first learned about Brigaid through one of my friends who had been conducting interviews with founder Dan Giusti for a newspaper article she was writing. Being a Connecticut College student, I often find it difficult to extend my consciousness beyond the “bubble” that is our campus up on the hill. While I never volunteered in downtown New London, except for a few times when mandated by class, I found myself drawn to the community meals on Wednesday nights this semester, compelled by Brigaid’s awesome mission and story.
After learning more about how Brigaid came to be and hearing Dan speak at a food justice panel at Connecticut College, some friends and I were approached by Kevin, Brigaid’s charismatic and driven communication director. He asked us to help volunteer at the community meals and, of course, we were thrilled to be a part of the movement in any way possible.
The Wednesday community dinners at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School are a special experience. Not only are you guaranteed a delicious and thoughtfully crafted meal for only five dollars, but there is an atmosphere that is getting harder and harder to come by in modern day America. It seems that our culture is full of driving from one appointment to the next and eating our solo take-out meals on the way. While Brigaid does offer take-away meals at the Wednesday night dinners, the atmosphere of the cafeteria is notably calmer and more interactive than many other dining experiences.
These dinners create an environment where the entire community can come together and sit down for a meal. Staying true to the mission of bringing high quality food to the people of New London, satisfying, scratch-made meals are all carefully prepared right in front of you by Dan himself. As you move through the line waiting for your meal to be individually plated, the radio in the kitchen plays soft – or not so soft – throwbacks. In the background, the Brigaid chefs move around the kitchen, swiftly maintaining the flow of food. The hum of discussion and children playing around the cafeteria set the tone for a relaxed and community oriented dining experience.
Last Wednesday, as my friends and I were volunteering in the kitchen, I took the opportunity to walk around and talk with community members who had come to enjoy the Jerk Chicken with rice and peas. One great thing about these meals is the wide range of people who attend these dinners. The first group I sat down with was a mother who was eating with about five elementary school children. When I asked one of the little girls if she liked the meal, she looked up at me, chicken in hand, gave me a big smile, and nodded her head quickly. Her mother explained that they had learned about the Wednesday night dinners from her daughter’s elementary school where Brigaid’s chefs were also working to revamp school food for the kids. The daughter then added that she loved the new meals at her school.
While the next two groups of diners I spoke with were both from different backgrounds, they had one thing in common — they loved the fact that these community meals brought them together. From the former colleagues of Brigaid chefs to senior living residents, they all sat and enjoyed the meal in a space none of them would have envisioned as their dining area a year ago. I especially enjoyed talking with the seniors about the local archaeology sites in the New London area, because when I told them I was an Anthropology major at Connecticut College, their eyes lit up and we sparked a long discussion.
It is amazing how these community dinners are not only affordable and accessible to people, but they also work to enhance one of the best aspects of food: company. While Brigaid’s main focus has undoubtedly been on reworking and rethinking the food in New London’s schools, these Wednesday night dinners have gone above and beyond to bring something new to the town. They have created an event where all members of the community are prompted to pause, come together and engage with one another — because what brings people together better than great food?
Moriah McKenna is a senior at Connecticut College studying biology and anthropology with a concentration in archaeology.
Growing up, he played in a band and went to college to pursue his love of music. Looking back, he now recognizes the many parallels between music and cooking. Both involve a great deal of synchronization between a lot of moving parts, continuous practice, and a finished product that is an artistic expression of teamwork and passion.
This past November, Wesley Barrington became the head chef at Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School in New London, CT and joined the Brigaid team in hopes of contributing to a program and a community that is transforming the way students eat in school.
Wesley is 26 years old and originally from Duxbury, MA, where he developed a passion for the bustle and excitement of a busy kitchen as a dishwasher at a corporate pizza chain.
With a lot of hard work and the help of the right people and the right chefs, everything seemed to fall into place and Wesley became a full-time chef at La Brasa, a restaurant in downtown Boston. After two years in the restaurant business honing his skills and growing as a chef, Wesley decided he wanted to look for a position with more purpose and meaning. He had primarily been cooking rich, meat-heavy meals, and he now wanted to make the switch to preparing healthier meals that were equally as tasty but a lot more wholesome. After stumbling upon an Internet ad for a position as a Brigiad chef in New London, Connecticut, Wesley decided to check out the area. He immediately fell in love with both the community and Brigaid’s mission.
In the four months since Wesley joined the Brigaid family, he has experienced both the rewards and the difficulties involved in preparing approximately 450 portioned meals for kindergarten through fifth grade, Monday through Friday, starting at 5AM each day.
He shared that perhaps the most difficult aspect of the school lunches is that there are six waves of students who eat lunch at different times within a three-hour block. Keeping those portions consistently good and fresh for such a long period of time is, unsurprisingly, no easy task.
However, the rewards greatly outnumber the challenges. Seeing the raw ingredients turn into 400 healthy meals for students in a matter of hours is pure magic. And even better is seeing kids who haven’t been exposed to a wide variety of foods fall in love with new flavors, such as the cinnamon dusted orange wedges that is served at the schools.
Looking ahead to the future of Brigaid, Wesley added, “if you’re at all interested in a world filled with healthy, happy people living as a community, all across the globe, then Brigaid should be on your mind.” If we allow it, food has the power to strengthen bonds between families, friends and people everywhere.
Riley Burfeind, a junior at Connecticut College majoring in Economics and minoring in Sociology, is a Brigaid intern.
As you might expect, being a Brigaid chef centers around school lunch. It’s certainly what we spend most of our time thinking about. What you might not expect is how many other responsibilities we have throughout our schools and the community. There are ones that are necessary to financially support the business and ones that are designed to cultivate the community. At the heart of all of this are the chefs, a group I’m extremely proud to be a part of.
Thinking back six months ago, I could never have envisioned everything that we would be doing now.
Back when we were planning the first month’s menu and talking very casually about additional catering, it seemed like a very peripheral part of the job. I had no idea we would be doing as much catering as we are. Any time an employee within the district wants to hold a meeting or event where food will be consumed, we make that food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekends, doesn’t matter, we have become the trusted food producer for these events. The catering requests have surpassed even our most optimistic projections. This, on the one hand, creates a lot more work for us, but, on the other hand, it provides a source of extra revenue, which goes directly into the food service program. In turn, that money can be used to improve conditions inside the kitchens through repairs and new equipment purchases.
When we brainstormed the idea of hosting a weekly community meal, I wasn’t sure what that would entail. They have been remarkably successful; so much so that it’s scary (in a good way, of course) to think about what might happen if they continue to grow at this pace. At the first meal in November we served approximately 90 people, and had so many leftovers that we spent a lot of time wondering where we should donate the food.
Now that time has passed and word has spread, we are actually running out of food. At our last three community meals, we served over 300 people during this time. The services have become much more intense, much more focused. I think all of us chefs have stepped up and are now holding ourselves to a much higher standard. Adding a 15-hour day in the middle of a very busy work week is extremely difficult, but it’s really nice to have a chance to cook with the team and have face-to-face discussions about what’s working and what isn’t within our schools. And of course, it’s an opportunity to show off a little bit, to learn something from a peer, to stay sharp and challenge ourselves to create an amazing meal for five dollars. Most importantly, it’s a chance to give back to a community and a school system that has truly supported us every step of the way: to provide an opportunity for people from all walks of life to enjoy a quality meal prepared with skill, care and thought.
Surprisingly, though, sometimes the most difficult part of our jobs is simply procurement. It’s been very difficult to get consistent, high quality food into our cafeterias. We have spent a lot of time trying to convince food purveyors to treat us like a restaurant and not like a school. We would like them to understand that we aren’t interested in pre-sliced apples or already pulled pork. Though we’ve made a significant amount of progress, we still have a long way to go before this stigma of being a school is erased. It’s no easy task explaining to hundreds of hungry students that the food today isn’t all that great because we received the wrong product or, because no matter where we look or what samples we get in, none of the options are very good. In some cases, we’ve even had to switch menu items because of what food is available to us. Fortunately we have begun to open up new relationships with vendors better suited to service this district, since a school system that serves over 3000 meals a day provides an incredible business opportunity for food service companies.
There then are times when it’s all clicking, when the staff is working hard and everyone is in a great mood. When we’re ready on time, the plates look nice, and it all seems to be unfolding as if it were scripted. Then, towards the end of a lunch wave, I walk into the cafeteria as I often do to solicit feedback from our guests. But, despite everything working according to plan in the kitchen, I hear that some kids did not enjoy the food. Every time it’s something you must be prepared for, and I’ve, without question, taken more direct criticism for the food that I’ve prepared in one month than I think I have taken collectively in my life. It’s tough, yes, but it’s a challenge I’m excited to tackle every day.
We are just past the halfway mark of our first school year in New London. I believe we’ve worked incredibly hard to make progress and reset expectations for the district for what school food can be like going forward. All the 14 and 16-hour days have been paying off and we’re starting to move the needle. We are now seeing higher and higher participation rates in hot lunches. We are getting much more positive feedback from the students and the larger school community. It certainly hasn’t been easy but we are now starting to see signs that the impossible may be possible after all.
Ryan Kennedy is the head chef at New London High School.
Brigaid has created a new tradition here in New London, CT. Every Wednesday night, hundreds of people from New London and nearby towns gather inside the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School cafeteria. For five dollars, anyone can come eat a meal executed by professional chefs, including one who used to be the head chef at the world’s best restaurant, Noma. That is, before the food runs out after 300-350 servings.
But the most important part of these weekly community dinners might be something other than the food itself; it may be the sense of community the dinners help sustain and grow.
An idea that has been in founder Dan Giusti’s mind since the inception of Brigaid, these community dinners offer an opportunity for the residents in and out of New London to gather on a weekly basis, meet new people, and break bread together. As you walk into the cafeteria, you see Sam Wilson, the New London School District’s Food Services Director, seated at a table selling tickets for the meal. On the table, you see a plate of the night’s dinner. And then, one simply returns to school.
The process of picking up your meal is exactly the one that hundreds of Bennie Dover students go through every day. You get in line (in this case, you can choose between a dine-in and a take-out line), pick up a tray, and move along the line outside of the kitchen to pick up your food. And that’s it. Once you pick up your food, you move to the cafeteria and sit down and enjoy the meal.
As the meals have grown in prominence, Brigaid started noticing a trend. People were donating tickets. Meaning, a family of three would buy five tickets and donate the two extra tickets to those who couldn’t afford it otherwise. This meant kids (often students after basketball practice) and those who usually got their weekly supply of food from the food pantry or shelters could participate and eat an incredible meal. Brigaid has also stepped up to partner with local food pantries to give out free meal vouchers. More, what started as a purely local New London event has started attracting regulars from towns all over the area.
New London locals, Margaret Palmer and Lester French, joined Brigaid for the first time on February 1st, and talked about how much they appreciated that the meals were a real “community effort” and planned on becoming regulars to these dinners. Importantly, Palmer and French did not know about the full Brigaid story before the meal, but after talking to some of Brigaid’s staff, they loved the mission and were excited to spread the word. And one loyal customer that you can always find is New London City Council President Anthony Nolan. Now, every Wednesday, Nolan can be seen unassumingly washing dishes in the kitchen, just trying to pitch in for the effort.
Katie Young, a former co-worker of Brigaid chef Ryan Kennedy, has also made it her weekly routine to attend the dinners and bring more people from her nearby East Lyme community to the meals. Anytime you talk to Young about Brigaid, she gushes about Brigaid’s endeavor.
New London has always had a certain feel about it, a sense of pride. New London residents will tell you that there’s something special about this town. And now, one can see that there’s also something special happening in this town. New London’s population is growing; its economy rising. The peak whaling days might be tougher to find, but there’s something else great happening here in New London. And Brigaid is honored to be a part of it.
In September, Brigaid Chefs April Kindt and Ryan Kennedy hit the ground running at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School (April) and New London High School (Ryan), in New London, CT.
They have served delicious meals to over 1000 students each day of the school year so far. This is no easy task with a limited budget ($1.25 per meal) and just 20 minutes for kids to pick up and eat their food.
From this interview you will see why they were the perfect people to figure out how to make it work. April and Ryan were interviewed separately, but you may also notice some similarities in their responses, a testament to why they make such a great team!
How have your experiences led you to this job?
April Kindt: The reason I’m here is because this job has more meaning than any restaurant job ever will. For me, this job is all about the fact that you get to cook, you get to do the job that you love and you know that the food is great, but you also know that you’re making a huge impact on someone’s life.
Ryan Kennedy: I think the biggest thing is that I have kids. I have a daughter in the school system – not this one, but a local one. Just seeing how disappointed she is with school lunch every day – you know, she did the hot lunch just about through the first half of kindergarten. I would ask her what she had for lunch and she would just say nothing. I care so much about this town and city. I met my wife here, my mother-in-law is here still, my nephew goes to school here, my sister lives here, my first job as a chef was in this town, so I thought it would be important to come back and do this job for a community that’s given so much to me.
When was the moment you realized you wanted to be a chef?
AK: I would say I was probably ten when I decided that was what I wanted to do. I cooked at home with my mom and like every other chef, it all started with family – then, you know, I started making my own things. The first thing I made on my own was peanut butter cookies and I didn’t look at the recipe before I started so I ended up not having three of the ingredients, I had to go to a neighbor’s house and ask them for the stuff. Then I burned like half of the cookies – of course I went back to the neighbor’s house and gave them the cookies – that is to say, the ones that were still alright. Just being able to give something that you made to someone and see their reactions and them enjoying it is kind of a cool thing.
RK: I’d worked in restaurants for probably eight years before I knew. It was just sort of a job that I’d always had. I always liked cooking, I just never made the connection that I could be a chef and that I could make a living doing it. I got my first kitchen manager job and I was just learning new things about food, and then I got a raise and I suddenly realized that being a chef could be a career for me. I could do something I loved and make money. I love food and I’m passionate about it.
What excites you about working with kids in school lunch?
AK: The fact that you get to build a relationship with the kids. I always joke that I have more friends in middle school now than I had when I was actually in middle school. For me, the great thing has been seeing that the kids are noticing that we care about them. They’ve started stopping by the cafeteria just to say hi. They’re going to be welcomed and pretty much whatever they ask for, I’m going to give them.
RK: I think the biggest thing is just that I catered in an affluent town for the past 9 years, and, not that the people weren’t nice, it’s just the things I’d get complaints about – it was just ridiculous. And I thought it would be really awesome to cook a good meal for kids, who are getting a ton of their calories from here. I always let the kids know that if they need anything, they can come to me and we can have personal interactions – sort of like this is my dining room. I circulate through here and shake hands, ask them how things are, fix mistakes, and hear complaints. For twenty-two minutes, they come here and they know that if there’s a problem or a concern, we’ll take care of them.
What has been the biggest challenge?
AK: One would be developing the recipes. When it finally clicked that we could make the meals healthy just by cooking from scratch without giving it too much thought. I also think training the staff is still a big challenge. I always say I think I have the best team here, and I think I do. They’re essentially doing a completely different job than they did last year. Just the fact that they don’t know half the time what I’m talking about when I tell them to get a piece of equipment or to cut something a certain way – just the extra steps to train them has been a challenge, but rewarding.
RK: Time management. Knowing that you have dozens of problems that need solving, or at least need attention, is just part of the job. Making peace with the fact that we’re going to fix one or two today – these other ones aren’t solved but they weren’t solved yesterday – when you can focus like that and start checking things off the list as you go down, it feels good. It is hard to not get lost in the overall mountain of things that need attention.
What has been the biggest success?
AK: The success comes when the kids like the food and when they know that we are here for them, and that we’re listening. Recently, I talked to a few kids in the cafeteria and one kid said, “Oh, I really don’t like this meal.” It was the black bean quesadilla. And he said, “I don’t want this. I want you to make this other thing that you made,” and his friend right next to him was like, “Don’t tell her that! Now they’re not going to make it again!” I was like okay this is good – they’re very opinionated about the food, they’re paying attention, and they also realize that when they say something, we’re listening. Also, yesterday, we served the whole meal, from prep to execution, without me touching or cooking any of it – my staff did everything. I pointed it out to them right away because it’s something that they should realize and be proud of. They are getting it and they are doing a great job. For me, just seeing that meal go out, I was like wow, this is going to work.
RK: For me it was forging a relationship with the staff that was pretty tight-nit, that I had no part of before – many of them had been here for ten plus years and they did things a certain way. Then I came in and now they have to take all of their ques from me, I decide everything when it comes to how we’re going to execute and who’s going to do what and where and when and all that stuff. Now I feel a part of that group, where they genuinely don’t question my intentions or my motivations or why I’m here. They know that I’m here to try and take care of them, and we’re here to collectively take care of the students. Also, I love having a strong rapport with sixty to a hundred students who I know by name and who say ‘what’s up’ to me and ask what’s for lunch and give honest feedback, good bad or indifferent, about the food.
What in your work has made you proud?
AK: I’m proud to say that I get to cook for these kids, and to know that what I’m doing is important. Of course, working with truffles and dry aged beef is fun, but at the end of the day you don’t really have anything to show for it. But with this job, the kids are essentially happier, healthier, and well-taken care of. I’m also proud to say that my team has embraced the challenge and that they are doing such a great job.
RK: It’s hard because I’m always proud but I’m not satisfied, so it’s hard to balance those two. I’m proud with where we are today compared with where we were. A mountain has moved in terms of the progress that we have made. Also, knowing where I want to be on day 180 when school is over and knowing how far there is to go, it’s hard for it to be more than just a passing moment of pride. I’m proud of the staff and the relationships that we now have with the students. And we’ve changed the student’s expectations of us. They now know that if they have a problem they can voice it.
What are similarities and differences about cooking for kids vs. a restaurant environment?
AK: The kids are very honest. In a restaurant, you do have people that will complain if they don’t like something, but for the most part, people won’t say anything. Here, the kids will come through the lunch line and they’re either excited – like one time they clapped because they had a chicken sandwich – or they tell you right to your face that it is disgusting, which is helpful because you don’t have to guess what’s going on. I mean, we’ve had so many recipes that we thought were going to be really killer, that everyone would love, but it turned out they hated it. It sucks when that happens, and you feel like shit sometimes because everything that you’ve worked for, everything you thought was going to be great, all of the sudden the kids hate it, but you can’t really think about it that way – that’s just your pride – we’re here for the kids. If they don’t like it, we don’t make it. It’s just as simple as that. It’s part of the fun of it though. They pretty much challenge us to please them. It is a hard job, but we’ll get there.
RK: There certain meals that I make that I think taste good. Being as objective as I can be when it comes to a taste or an opinion, I can find myself believing that the food is good, of high quality, and executed well, but they just don’t like it. There’s no arguing with that. So, there’s been a few things that we’ve just had to scrap or a couple things that we just do in much smaller quantities that I like and think are good but they just don’t like it. And there are other meals that I think are just okay, but they think it’s great. I think before, in a restaurant environment working with adults, there’s just less tension between those two points of view. We’re not here for ourselves, we’re not here to stroke our egos as chefs, we’re here for the kids and we’re here to make food that they want to eat, just a higher quality and healthier version of it.
For the last several months, I’ve traveled around the US, visiting schools and observing their food service programs. This is a new arena for me, so I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to learn as much as I can about the challenges of school food service programs.
My favorite part of school visits is always the same: meeting students. From kindergarten to high school, they always have something to say about what they do and don’t like to eat — and their comments are always reasonable.
The one topic that always comes up? Pizza.
If you ever ate school lunch as a kid, you probably remember Pizza Fridays. The trend lives on, but many of the students don’t eagerly await it anymore. They’re tired of eating the same thing week after week, especially when it tastes wildly different from the pizza they have become accustomed to eating at home or in restaurants.
Why does the pizza taste so different? Well, to adhere to the USDA nutritional guidelines, significant adjustments must be made to the standard recipe. The most noticeable and unpleasant change is the use of low-fat cheese. Cheese that’s lower in fat content doesn’t melt as well as full-fat cheese, and it quickly becomes a plastic-like texture (if it doesn’t burn first) when it ends up on the pizza served on school lunch trays.
But, more than taste, the real issue is that we’re still leaning on pizza as the anchor of the weekly school lunch menu. Instead of spending time taking foods that are traditionally liked by kids and tweaking them into “healthier,” less desirable versions, we should be looking to develop new kid-friendly recipes that are not only nutritious, but expose students to new food experiences.
We can do better than serving the same lackluster options week in and week out. And we can teach our students healthy, balanced eating habits in the process. If Meatless Mondays can take off, imagine the alternatives for Pizza Fridays.