Patricia L. Fitzgerald and Cecily Walters 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Join School Nutrition behind the scenes of “Chopped,” the buzzed-about Food Network show, and learn how four inspiring school nutrition professionals sliced and diced some longstanding negative stereotypes, while raising the public awareness bar for healthy school meals. When the School Nutrition magazine team received this e-mail from SNA Past President Karen Johnson, SNS, last winter, we hadn’t even heard of “Chopped” and had no idea that we’d missed a truly landmark event: the single-most positive and inspiring portrayal of school nutrition professionals ever to be broadcast on television. Thank goodness for repeats! And once we had caught up and were able to view the episode for ourselves, we knew, without a doubt, that we had to highlight it in the pages of this magazine. Because, while the “Class Acts” episode showcases four individuals, these “cafeteria wonder women” represent all of our readers. Because, this is your story. On the Block If you are not a devotee of The Food Network, you might not be familiar with “Chopped,” a cooking competition show that emphasizes skill, speed and ingenuity. First aired in January 2009, “Chopped” challenges four up-and-coming chefs to take everyday ingredients and turn them into unforgettable dishes within a 20-30-minute time period. The competition is divided into three rounds: appetizer, entrée and dessert. After presenting their culinary creations to a three-judge panel, the chefs are “chopped,” course by course, from the competition, until only one winner is left standing. Host Ted Allen directs the high-pressure tests, in which the chefs are presented with a mystery basket of three to five ingredients that must be included in the dish; typically these are an oddball match of items not commonly prepared together (the contestants may supplement the required ingredients with available items from a pre-stocked pantry and refrigerator). With only seconds to plan and 20-30 minutes to prepare and plate, the chefs are challenged to produce an outstanding recipe that is judged on creativity, flavor and presentation. While the show typically features chefs who work in restaurants and commercial foodservice, in 2011, the producers cast a special episode featuring four school nutrition professionals from the Northeast—and giving school lunch “the ‘Chopped’ treatment,” as described by Allen in his introduction. “In December 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack paid a visit to the Food Network offices, where a conversation…landed on our mutual goals and efforts to end childhood hunger,” recounts Katie Ilch, vice president, On & Off Air Media Strategy, Food Network & Cooking Channel. Putting “lunch ladies” on the chopping block was seen as a way to draw in a strong, built-in audience, she notes. Partners at Share Our Strength helped to source casting recommendations that would feature school nutrition professionals who were making a difference in their individual schools. The emotional “Class Acts” episode was an overnight sensation, and it has been repeated several times since its original airing. Irika Slavin, vice president, Communications & Public Relations, Food Network & Cooking Channel, reports that the show “received many, many, many viewer responses. We knew we had achieved something special with the episode, leading to a no-brainer when planning for revisiting the concept.” Indeed, at press time, a second episode featuring school chefs reportedly had been taped and was expected to be broadcast sometime in the fall. The four contestants competing in “Class Acts” were Cheryl Barbara, head cook, High School in the Community, New Haven, Conn.; Rhonda DeLoatch, head chef and foodservice director, Common Ground Environmental Charter High School, New Haven, Conn.; Dianne Houlihan, then-assistant cook/manager at Great Neck Elementary, Waterford, Conn.; and Arlene Leggio, cook/manager at Islip High School, Long Island, N.Y. Barbara won the competition and its $10,000 prize. Reality TV There were several elements to the “Class Acts” episode that made it such a powerful, positive promotion of school nutrition. At the very start, the show referenced the goal of school meals programs to serve balanced, nutritious meals to every child, and with every minute that aired, it shattered preconceptions about school meals. “We have a one-acre garden and serve fresh food every day,” said DeLoatch, on camera, of her school nutrition operation. “I believe you can make food fun and glamorous, as well as healthy.” This sentiment was echoed by Leggio: “My goal is to have restaurant-style meals in the cafeterias. Every school is capable of making changes. Stop with the reheating and just start cooking.” Houlihan acknowledged that, while she knew that recipes would be judged on presentation, flavor and creativity, she made “nutrition” a fourth criterion by incorporating it into each of her dishes. And DeLoatch said she applied the MyPlate dietary guidance to her appetizer. While the dishes they created (see the page 72 ) might seem impractical for many school settings, all four contestants insisted that they created recipes with their student customers in mind. They cited such inspiration as the stealth health value of “hiding vegetables”; tying recipes to school curriculum; using color, because “everyone eats with their eyes first”; and finding “fun, creative ways to incorporate more vegetables in kids’ diets.” And guest judge Sam Kass noted that, while unusual in combination, the selected Mystery Box ingredients were chosen so that most of the recipes prepared by the contestants would come in at a reasonable $1.25 per-meal cost. Right from the start of the episode, the four contestants made a point to dispel the negative stereotypes about “lunch ladies, in the hairnets, serving slop.” As eventual winner Barbara noted in her introductory remarks, “That’s so not it. We’re mothers. We’re grandmothers. We’re caretakers. I have an 11-year-old daughter…and 300 other children.” Over and over again, the contestants demonstrated their personal passion for this profession. “I may not make much money, but I feel like I’m rewarded by seeing their smiling faces every day,” said Houlihan. “I want to make them feel full; that’s number one,” noted Barbara. “And I want them to feel loved.” The “Chopped” contestants also noted how a combination of schooling, training and on-the-job experience has made them experts in their craft. Houlihan pointed out that she attended famed culinary school Johnson & Wales University, and DeLoatch affirmed, “I’m not a lunch lady; I’m a chef.” They also separated themselves from the typical array of “Chopped” contestants by refusing to undercut one another in the competition. “You can still compete, but you can compete nicely,” asserted DeLoatch on camera. Most of the four school chefs had never met prior to the show, but they were seen assisting, supporting and praising one another’s efforts. “For me to see my other co-workers produce beautiful lunches like that? It made me feel so proud,” said Barbara. Later, she added how similar the camaraderie and atmosphere in the “Chopped” kitchen was to a busy school kitchen: “We’re soldiers, and the only way we can do it is by having one another’s back.” In addition, the episode focused on the role of school meals in addressing childhood hunger. “For many kids, lunch is their last meal of the day,” noted Barbara. “And unless you work on that front line, you don’t know what it feels like to hear a child tell you he’s hungry.” This reality was echoed by Judge Marc Murphy, who cited troubling statistics that largely go unreported in the general media: “A lot of people don’t realize that one in four children doesn’t have enough food to eat in this country.” Barbara noted that her school has a high enrollment of children from families struggling to make ends meet, which prompted her to establish a Pasta Monday menu to ensure that hungry students would get a very filling meal on the first school day of the week. She also coordinates a backpack program to send food home to the most impoverished children on weekends. Throughout the one-hour episode, the show’s producers made a point to drive home the realities of the challenges faced by school nutrition professionals. These include cost restrictions, meeting nutrition standards and “the day-to-day challenge to get kids to try new things.” Repeatedly, the judges applauded the contestants—and their peers around the country—for being “heroes,” “magicians” and “an inspiration.” Murphy insisted that their job titles be changed from “cook” and “cook/manager” to “school chef,” a sentiment echoed by the other judges. “You’re chefs. Period,” said Kass. The whole experience was incredibly affirming to the four contestants, as well as to school nutrition professionals watching the show. Each of the participants noted how frustrating it is to be dismissed by many in their communities as “just a lunch lady.” They knew they were representing and giving voice to thousands of their peers—and they were grateful for the opportunity. That’s what all of us saw in the extremely well-edited reality television episode. But what about what we didn’t see? School Nutrition caught up with Barbara, DeLoatch, Houlihan and Leggio to find out. Meet the Contestants Cheryl Barbara has been in school nutrition a long time, she says, beginning cafeteria employment after being compelled to leave school and start bringing in a paycheck. She was joining a “family business” of sorts, following in the footsteps of her grandmother and two aunts. And it was a good choice, she says, having a love for cooking, nurtured as the first in line of some 28 grandchildren. She may have fallen into school nutrition, but she quickly embraced it. She stayed at her first site, an elementary school, for 16 years, only leaving when the principal retired. After a stint at a large middle school in the same district, she moved to a much-smaller magnet high school seven years ago to serve as its cook. Rhonda DeLoatch has an extensive culinary background, having operated her own businesses as a caterer and a personal chef, before taking the position at Common Ground High School, where she has been for close to eight years. While she references a bumpy start in getting up to speed with the initially overwhelming aspects of K-12 school nutrition programs, today DeLoatch considers her operation to be an innovator, especially in farm-to-table programs and nutrition education efforts. Dianne Houlihan has “always loved food,” and combined interests in art and cooking by going to culinary school. She operated her own restaurant (along with her mother) for 10 years, before a diagnosis of Lyme disease sidelined her with six months’ total bed rest. Once ready to return to work, she thought that an opening at a local elementary school would be a good fit with her need to raise her two young daughters, and 14 years later, she’s still working in the same district. Arlene Leggio attributes her path to school nutrition—and to “Chopped”— to “luck,” she says. Like many of her contemporaries, once her young children started school, she sought a position that would keep her close by and that would align with their schedule. And so Leggio began what has become an 18-year relationship, with the last dozen years at her current job at the district’s high school. Roll Tape! It’s a long process to bring a reality competition from concept to airing. The contestants applied for the show in January 2011, background packages at their schools were filmed one full day in the spring; the taping of the episode took place in late June; and it aired in mid-fall. All four contestants affirm that the crew shoots 10 times the amount of footage than what makes it into the final episode, and they estimate that they were taping between 14 and 16 hours. So, what’s it like to be on the set of a television show? The school chefs share a little of what the home viewers missed. • “There are a million people in the room,” says DeLoatch, citing a cameraman, assistant and producer for each cook contestant, plus the three judges and Allen. The set is much smaller than it appears on television—the judges are seated very close to the prep area. • The taping took place in late June. The jackets were heavy, and with the bright camera lights, the number of people in the small space and the cooking equipment, it was hot . “It was insanity, it really was,” recounts DeLoatch, and Houlihan equates it to “cooking in a sauna.” • There were long waits and multiple takes at the start of each round and the presentations to the judges, in order to perfect the lighting and camera angles. “All that behind-the-scenes stuff you don’t see as a viewer was really interesting,” affirms Houlihan, recalling one point when filming was stopped because a hanging knife was crooked. Barbara agrees: “I have so much appreciation for television, now that I see what goes into it.” • But there were no retakes once the chefs began cooking. Those might have been helpful, since the contestants experienced a few frustrations with equipment. In particular, they found the ovens were not uniformly preheated to the proper temperatures, as became evident when Leggio had to finish her entrée on the stovetop. (“It might have been where our ovens were positioned or maybe it was on purpose and they wanted to see how we would react,” Houlihan muses.) • The pantry also was disappointing. Leggio expected the seasonings and condiments to be organized in some logical fashion (they weren’t) and was surprised by the complete absence of certain items she considered essential. For example, taken to task by the judges for an aioli sauce that was too thick, Leggio now reveals that she knew it was the wrong consistency, but couldn’t find white vinegar to thin it out. Houlihan echoes this frustration: “I changed my entrée idea in my head about five times, because I kept going to the refrigerator and it didn’t have enough of the items I wanted.” • The four contestants seemed so at ease and in calm, capable control during the challenges and interviews, but, not surprisingly, each confesses to being extremely nervous, especially at the opening of the first Mystery Basket. Houlihan also recalls trying not to shake on camera when host Ted Allen announced who was “chopped” at the end of each round. Leggio, who’d gotten only an hour’s sleep the night before, worried that she’d let down all those who were cheering her on. Her worst fear was that “I’d go blank when I opened up the basket—and I did for a few seconds.” After mumbling a few choice words to try to get a hold of herself (“They didn’t show any of that , thank goodness”), she was back in control. Barbara reveals that she suffers from severe panic attacks, which abated while she was “in the zone” of the challenges but necessitated a week’s postponement of her final interview. • While interview questions were designed to get the contestants to reveal a greater sense of competition (“Was your dish better than so-and-so’s?”), the school chefs resisted. Indeed, in the wee hours of the morning before taping began, the four participants met in a diner and pledged that they would be cordial to one another and help each other out. And while the judges deliberated, the women congenially traded recipe ideas and tips, and had to be prompted to discuss how they “felt” about the previous round. The camaraderie was so strong, they would put their hands together and cheer one another on at the start of each round—something they were disappointed was cut from the final episode. The Challenges Barbara, Houlihan and Leggio are self-proclaimed “huge” fans of The Food Network, but as a group, they had varying degrees of familiarity with “Chopped.” In fact, Leggio and DeLoatch had not heard of the show at the time they were recruited to apply to be cast. Indeed, Leggio’s first impressions weren’t all that favorable: “I thought the judges were so rude, so I said, ‘I’ll never go on that show.’” But only days later she’d been convinced to apply, and weeks later, after a comedic series of missed phone calls, she learned she’d be a contestant. Once cast, Leggio’s competitive spirit kicked in. “I DVR’ed the show right around the clock,” she reveals. “My husband will tell you, I was using the pause button, staring at the pantry and trying to see what all the seasonings and condiments were. I was scoping it out every minute.” She even started dreaming about the show, including nightmares of being locked out of the freezers. DeLoatch wonders if her unfamiliarity may have put her at a disadvantage. “Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, and I over-analyzed. I thought they would give us unusual [ingredients] to cook, so I read lots of books and probably over-did it with my preparation,” she recounts. Barbara was “totally familiar” with the show (to the point where she was convinced that she was being pranked by a friend or the local radio station when she got a call from the producers after being nominated by her director). But that familiarity wasn’t necessarily a good thing, she notes, “I think it made me even more petrified!” As with any timed television competition, the contestants could not get over the impact of the ticking clock. “It was the fastest clock you’ve ever seen!” insists Houlihan. “It was stressful trying to come up with a dish,” affirms DeLoatch. “Once I opened my basket, I forgot where everything was.” But these women truly rose to the occasion by meeting each challenge with the grace and imagination they demonstrate each day on the front lines of school nutrition. “We did it as we do it in school; we opened the basket as we would the cooler and said, ‘What are we going to make that would be best for the kids?,’” said Barbara on camera. Nonetheless, they exceeded all expectations, especially in culinary creativity. Just consider: • Leggio created a dipping sauce from yogurt, jam, hot sauce and pickles (although she ran out of time to plate it properly and instead had to use it as a dressing). • Barbara didn’t want to use sugar to sweeten the cream cheese in her dessert round recipe, and opted instead to add a little mascarpone. • When Houlihan’s Fruit Ambrosia recipe seemed a little thin, she remembered a previous episode of “Chopped” where she saw an ingredient called Ultra-Tex® used to thicken a sauce when there’s no time to cook. (“We’ve got molecular gastronomy going on here,” marveled Murphy.) • Barbara acknowledged onscreen that she’d never worked with wonton wrappers and hadn’t even heard of quinoa; likewise Houlihan was not familiar with how to prepare the South American grain. Yet both earned praise for the solutions they devised. • In the dessert round, Houlihan hoped to earn extra points by using everything —including every second of time. “I did the smoothie at the end to show that, in schools, we have to use all of the ingredients we’re working with,” she reflects Not-so-secret Admirers The two regular “Chopped” judges, Marc Murphy and Amanda Freitag, insisted that they held the school chefs to the same high culinary standards set for other contestants, and certainly during both the initial impression feedback and the judges’ discussions, they and guest judge Kass did not hold back on criticisms, while also doling out the praise. Still, the on-camera advice was respectful and constructive, whether it was noting that a tomato should have been seasoned before being stuffed, that the natural sweetness of grilled pineapple is sufficient or that the school chefs needed to be more mindful of appropriate portion sizes. And the compliments they offered were deeply felt. Each contestant earned kudos for her thoughtful creativity, culinary expertise and attention to nutrition. For example, in praising Houlihan’s appetizer, Kass noted, “I love that you didn’t fry your wonton and you found a great way to use it that’s healthier. And kids love little dumplings, anything that’s mini; I thought that was a great touch.” In the judges’ “private” discussion, he called the tie she made between the recipe and a book the youngsters were reading in school to be “nothing short of genius.” Similarly, Murphy liked the “complexity” of the hot sauce that Leggio created for her appetizer, considering it a “bold move” to bring the sweetness of the apricot jam to the mixture. Freitag called the creativity of Barbara’s Sweet Grilled Cheese Sandwich “off the charts,” with Murphy declaring it a “bundle of joy.” DeLoatch was commended for her vibrant salad and application of the MyPlate guidance. Mutual admiration extended off camera, as well. The contestants all anticipated that Murphy would be “tough,” “nasty” and “scary,” but several identified him as their favorite of the judges, who has since become a dear friend. In fact, the day after the taping, he e-mailed each of the competitors and extended invitations to bring their families for a complimentary dinner at one of his New York restaurants. “Amanda was a sweetheart,” cites DeLoatch. “I saw her in her dressing room, and she apologized for chopping me. Her niceness helped take the edge off.” And Sam Kass made an impression on Houlihan: “He was so great and heartfelt. It was awesome that he took the time to do the show. He said some great things about school nutrition and feeding kids.” Ted Allen was “the coolest guy,” credits Barbara. “He has the greatest love for children and the greatest admiration for what we do.” The four contestants also gave enthusiastic shout-outs to producer Rachel Martin, and were appreciative of the “phenomenal” crew and production staff. “They were so warm and comforting,” recalls Leggio. “They treated us like queens,” agrees Barbara, also citing their patience, courtesy and commitment to making the contestants look great. In Hindsight “As each person was eliminated, you felt bad, because you knew it could have been you, and you didn’t want them to go. It broke your heart,” recalls Houlihan, and all four competitors genuinely believed that there were no “losers” among the dishes, recognizing that someone had to be “chopped’ each round. Time has lent itself to additional perspectives, which follow. DeLoatch confirms that she was disappointed to be “chopped” after the first round, especially when she learned the entrée round would feature chicken, collard greens and quinoa. “I make all of that [at our school],” she laments. Leggio was similarly dismayed, not expecting to get “chopped” on the entrée round, since she felt very comfortable with all of the ingredients. Houlihan says that competing on “Chopped” was the hardest thing she’s ever done. “Giving birth was easier. The whole day was an emotional rollercoaster,” she recounts. “It was very intense, but well worth it and fun.” Leggio has a new appreciation for the struggles of other “Chopped” contestants in managing the clock. Although used to the fast pace of a school kitchen, she admits she made a few poor choices in time management, most notably choosing to wash a cutting board during the entrée round, rather than simply using a replacement. (She recalls Marc Murphy asking a producer, “Why is she doing that?!”) Even her children later took her to task for not moving faster, accusing her of “coasting.” But, she jokes, “I swear they speed up those clocks.” “Chopped” Judge Murphy continues to extol the virtues of school chefs in an interview with School Nutrition. “The level of cooking they were doing really impressed me. … They should be recognized as chefs along with other types of chefs,” he insists. “I was really impressed by Cheryl’s Sweet Grilled Cheese dessert. I’m still talking about it. It was ridiculous Murphy believes that giving school chefs the title they’ve earned can only help the profession—and the children they serve. “By calling them chefs, we can make school nutrition more enticing and attract more talent. The term gives them more validity and more importance,” he notes. “School nutrition operators deserve so much more respect. … We need to make leaders out of those already in the profession, who can inspire others.” Barbara is glad that Murphy insists on this kind of professional recognition. “I may have won the money,” she reflects, “but all of us, all around the country, we won the right to say, ‘We are not lunch ladies.’ We’re all winners.” Top Chefs By the end of the episode, tears were flowing profusely—on set and in living rooms across the country. The contestants were moved by the opportunity to showcase their passion for the school nutrition profession, and the judges responded to their incredible dedication to kids. (In fact, filming had to be suspended at one point, because everyone on the set was crying.) “I would almost do it again,” says DeLoatch. Houlihan also waffles a bit: “It was great, but it was so intense…yeah, I think I’d probably go back.” Leggio is far less equivocal, genuinely hoping that the producers will invite her back for a redemption episode. “And if I get the chance to go back, I will not use the oven,” she promises. “I’ll only use equipment where I can actually see the flame.” (Note: She probably won’t wash her cutting boards, either.) Winning School Chef Cheryl Barbara had these closing on-camera comments: “The show has made me whole. There’s no other way to describe it. I’ve never considered myself a chef, but after what I completed today, at 50 years old, I became a chef.” That kind of self-affirmation is a gift to all school nutrition professionals. “I wish everyone could have this experience,” says Houlihan. So do we. School Nutrition thanks the team at “Chopped” for helping to make mincemeat of outdated myths and misperceptions about the unsung heroes of America’s schools. BONUS WEB CONTENT What’s happened to the four school chef contestants in the months since the “Class Acts” episode of “Chopped” aired last year? The experience of a lifetime has led to widespread recognition, fast friendships, new opportunities and renewed passions for each—plus a few surprises! In addition, we’ve compiled more of the fascinating behind-the-scenes insights shared by the school chefs and made them available online. Read all about it at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. “CHOPPED” CHALLENGES Appetizer Round (20 minutes) MYSTERY BOX INGREDIENTS: Canned Tuna Fish, Wonton Wrappers, Spinach, Dill Pickles CHEF ARLENE: Stuffed Wonton with Tuna Florentine (with additional sriracha, celery, apricot jam) With a Hot Sauce CHEF CHERYL: Sautéed Spinach and Spicy Italian Sausage Stuffed Wontons (with additional garlic, shallots) With Tuna Salad Stuffed Into a Plum Tomato CHEF DIANNE: Goat Cheese and Tuna Beggar’s Purse (with additional peppers, sage, white bread) on a Field of Greens CHEF RHONDA: Deconstructed Tuna Salad Sandwich (with additional peppers, tomatoes, red onion) and Salad Entrée Round (30 minutes) MYSTERY BOX INGREDIENTS: Collard Greens, Chicken Breasts, Anchovies, Quinoa CHEF ARLENE: Chicken Pinwheel (with additional mozzarella, sausage, shallots) Stuffed With Collard Greens with a side of Quinoa and Sausage CHEF CHERYL: Quinoa-Coated Chicken (with additional egg, garlic, crushed red pepper) With Penne Pasta, Sautéed Collards and Anchovies CHEF DIANNE: Sesame-Crusted Chicken (with additional cumin, garlic) on a Bed of Collard Greens and Lentils Topped with Vegetable Quinoa Dessert Round (30 minutes) MYSTERY BOX INGREDIENTS: Sunflower Seeds, Grapes, Cream Cheese, Canned Pineapple CHEF CHERYL: Sweet Grilled Cheese Sandwich (with additional mascarpone) With Drizzled Chocolate CHEF DIANNE: Honey Grilled Pineapple With a Fresh Fruit Ambrosia (with additional basil, tortilla, cinnamon) and a Fresh Fruit Smoothie CHECK OUT “CHOPPED” Did you miss the “Class Acts” episode when it aired on The Food Network? Want to see it again? At SNA’s Annual National Conference in Denver in July, viewings will be presented in the Wells Fargo Theater foyer. And attendees won’t want to miss Tuesday’s General Session, featuring “Class Acts” special judge Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and senior policy advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, who will share more behind-the-scenes reflections. The session is sponsored by McCormick for Chefs. Patricia Fitzgerald and Cecily Walters are, respectively, editor and assistant editor of School Nutrition. Photos courtesy of the contestants and Television Food Network, G.P. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
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