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.