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.