Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cooking for 25 versus 500

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.


  1. I'm kind of amazed at the idea that a grilled chicken breast is considered a choking hazard, but grapes are not...

    It's a weird world we live in. I started homeschooling my son this year, which gives me almost complete control over what he eats. He is in the 7th grade. In the past we packed a lunch for him (but packed lunch doesn't mean it all gets eaten). We've started including nutrition in our curriculum...

  2. This is right up my alley. I just began managing a camp kitchen where we feed from 30 - 180 kids and adults. To varying degrees. The difference is that I'm lucky if I feed the same person more than once a year.
    this is the first post of yours that i've read and I can't wait to read you more regularly! Thanks for blogging!

  3. Fascinating! I went to cooking school before I had my son and what I really learned there was organization. I really feel like so many home cooks are just overwhelmed by the 'idea' of doing the cooking- when really it's mostly prep!

    We had a real food revolution at my son's old school and the district totally changed our food service provider's menu.

    but at my son's new school, although there is a small group of parents who care about this kind of health/food issue, I am amazed at how many parents JUST AREN'T INTERESTED. Seriously, in an award winning public school with great teachers and where kids are really getting a great education, parents just don't think school lunches merit discussion. It's very frustrating. I really like hearing your perspective on cooking for groups- people need to know that it IS attainable to make healthy, yummy meals for kids- even on a school budget!

  4. I am so intrigued... WHAT is feta cabbage pie? And where can I get some? YUM!

  5. people pay you to cook that shit....?