Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Clockwise from upper left: carrots, croutons, pineapple, zucchini salad, hummus, onion
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Friday, March 19, 2010
My very first blog piece was Pizza Perspectives for the Fed Up with Lunch: the School Lunch Project blog. You may have seen it already but if you haven’t, you can find the piece here.
I had so much fun writing it that I started this blog. It is really surprising that a plain piece of school pizza has 62 ingredients, so I wondered how that compares to other pizzas.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
I’m new to blogging and am trying to figure out what kind of pieces are appropriate for this blog. I’m also trying to add more pictures to the blog. Right now, I’m on school vacation, so I can’t offer any pictures of school lunch. So, what you see in these pictures above are meals that I cook as a private chef.
In addition for working for a school cafeteria, I cook dinners five times a week for a group of about twenty-five adults. Most things are made from scratch. Each night, I offer a main course, side vegetable, starch, salad, and dessert. I come up with the menu and write it up on a board. Each day after cooking the meals, I leave it for them on the stove. I don’t see many of them while I am there cooking. If someone has a strong opinion about the food, she usually writes it on the board.
This is my second year as their private chef, and I noticed that they seem to prefer some of the richer, unhealthier options. “I would walk 10,000 extra miles to eat your mac n’ cheese!” someone wrote. I’m not going to make indulgent foods everyday, so each week I balance a rich entree with a healthier meal, a vegetarian meal, and a fish meal.
As long as it is within our budget, I get to cook without much of any food restrictions. I’ve made chicken coconut noodle soup, shrimp gumbo, feta cabbage pie. It is quite a contrast to the meals served at my school cafeteria, where we need to think about things like, is this food going to be a choking hazard to our youngest students? (This issue came up when we served a grilled chicken breast instead of our normal chicken patty.)
What does it take to cook dinners five nights a week for twenty-five people? About two and a half hours a day. I don’t do the dishes used for the cooking, but I do rinse them free of food and grease. I write up a list of ingredients I need each week and email them to the house manager. The food is usually there in the fridges when I walk into the kitchen. Here is the menu for this week, minus a standard salad:
1. Beef and black bean chili and vegetarian corn, chickpea and black bean chili, steamed broccoli, cheddar cornbread, fruit salad with cantaloupe, grapes and strawberries
2. Soy marinated chicken breast with garlic and scallions, roasted potatoes, asparagus, brownies
3. Whole wheat pasta primavera with cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, asparagus and zucchini, creamed spinach, cake
4. Breakfast for dinner (Huh? It’s one of their favorite meals!!): baked eggs, breakfast sausages, cinnamon French toast, roasted broccoli and cauliflower, rice crispies treats
5. Roasted salmon, rice, sautéed zucchini, peppers and corn, apple crisp
Here’s the menu from a past week this month at my school cafeteria (we’re on spring break right now). We serve 500. In addition to what you see on the menu, there are salad, bagel, and deli bars. There are eight of us, most of us part-time. We have less than three hours to prepare lunch each day before the first of five lunch services starts. After the last lunch is over 3 hours later, the kitchen is cleaned and in thirty minute, most of the kitchen crew leaves for the day. In addition to lunch, we provide food for special events, from simple breakfasts for meetings to catering 200 person special dinners. We also sell snacks mid-morning and provide snacks for our after school program and sports teams.
1. Beef stew, wheat roll, corn chowder, grapes
2. Chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, garden vegetable soup, cookie
3. Ham and cheese sandwich, coleslaw, pickles, cream of broccoli soup, ice cream
4. Mac and cheese, sweet peas, French onion soup, diced peaches
5. French bread pizza, salad, chef’s choice of soup, cake
After calculating the number of labor hours at both of my jobs, I was shocked to find that they are roughly the same per meal per person coming in at 6 minutes per meal!!
As a private chef, I cook most things from scratch. At school, our main meal normally comes in frozen. As a private chef, I have an entire kitchen to myself including two mixers, a stove, and an oven. At school, the eight of us share a kitchen with one tiny mixer, a stove, and two ovens. As a private chef, I spend my time at work pretty much just cooking. At school, we spend most of our time doing other things such as serving lunch, washing dishes, and selling snacks. Preparing the meal accounts for less than half of the time we spend in the kitchen.
If we want better meals, it seems clear we need to devote some more time to cooking. It’s a goal that’s reasonable and within reach. We also need a bigger and better equipped kitchen.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Saturday, March 13, 2010
A “thaw-and-serve” meal is the industrial version of the TV dinner. It’s the kind of meal that comes out of my cafeteria hotline. Preparing the meal involves thawing it in the oven to about 160 degrees and then serving it. The stuff can go from frozen to ready in twenty minutes. Hamburgers, nuggets, chicken patties, mac and cheese, and pizza are all “thaw-and-serve.”
Cooking is nearly extinct in the school kitchen, and it makes me wonder how this happened. Once upon a time there were family-style meals at my school with food that was baked, sautéed, or roasted. “Thaw-and-serve” didn’t exist.
Making egg salad traditionally involved boiling and peeling eggs. It’s time and labor intensive: pulling the eggs out of the water when the yolks are fully cooked, uniformly yellow, and not tinged with a green ring takes skills.
Today, we never have a problem with sulfur-y, overcooked eggs. Our egg salad starts with hardboiled eggs in bags that keep for a surprisingly long time in the fridge. The eggs are perfectly cooked and peeled every time! Who knew that you could get eggs like that? Not long after seeing eggs in a bag in my school kitchen, I spotted them at one of my favorite grocery stores.
In schools, food isn’t the priority, clearly. Often times, it isn’t in our homes either.
Part 2: How my school went from family-style meals to “thaw-and-serve” feed lots.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I work for a progressive private school, Pre-K through 12th grade. We serve lunches each day to students and staff in an all you can eat cafeteria. Participation is nearly 100% for students and staff, as lunch is included in student tuition and a perk for everyone else.
I started working there close to the beginning of the 2008 school year. The job description mentioned updating its food offerings with local and organic items, and that is what interested me. In addition to a main meal “hot line,” there is a soup bar during colder months and year-round salad and deli bars.
Even when I first started, the lunches were much better than your average school lunch. The kitchen exclusively served organic milk and yogurt, and the salad bar always had lettuce, tomatoes, and other fresh vegetables.
Even with a few great items in the cafeteria, it still has a long way to go. The majority of students and staff eat food from the main meal line, and the food is just a small step up from an average school lunch. Hot dogs, hamburgers, nuggets, and pizza are monthly mainstays. Yes, the hot dogs might be lower sodium and the buns are made with whole wheat, but healthy and nutritious, they are not.
Before taking this job, I worked in a few upscale restaurant kitchens as a cook, pastry chef, and sous chef. I rarely cooked at home, and I ate pretty poorly during those years. It made me wonder why I was cooking in the first place.
I would never have guessed I would end up working in a school cafeteria five years ago. New York City was just beginning to revamp its school lunch program when I was finishing up culinary school. They were hiring at my culinary school’s career fair. I was interested, but I didn’t linger at their booth too long. Why would I spend two years of my life learning to cook and then work for a school, where little cooking is done on premises?
Several years later and exhausted from twelve hour days feeding a select few restaurant-goers, I began to think about school food. I heard more and more about people like Alice Waters and Ann Cooper. I taught a free cooking class for high school students and their stories reminded me how bad school lunch can be. At some point, tackling a stagnant school food system seemed much more interesting than making truffle risotto day in and day out.