By Chef Lorena Garcia 2013-09-04 20:34:41
A TOP CHEF DISHES OUT PRAISE AND ADVICE FOR SCHOOL NUTRITION PROFESSIONALS IT’S BACK-TO-SCHOOL TIME, and all around the country, students are packing up their backpacks with new school supplies to get ready for a successful year. That means it is also time for school nutrition staff to gear up with fresh ideas and new approaches to keep young customers coming back for more. As a restaurateur and contestant on “Top Chef Masters,” I am always looking for fresh new ways to reinvent good food, so I was delighted to accept School Nutrition magazine’s invitation to share both my expertise and my passion for creating tasty, healthy meals with you this month. What new strategies can I bring to your school kitchens to help you bring out the “wow,” while making the most of limited time, space, budget, staff and ingredients? I am from Venezuela, and I have loved cooking since I was little. My country doesn’t have culinary schools, and I come from a family of attorneys, so I went to law school instead. But after graduating, I came to the United States and had the wonderful opportunity to go to Johnson & Wales University. But the differences in food and culture quickly caught up with me. I gained 40-50 pounds when I first arrived in the United States. I think a lot of the Latin community has struggled with adapting to the fast-paced food lifestyle here. Because of my own struggles with weight and seeing the reality of what so many families face in this country, I asked myself what I could do to make a difference in kids’ lives. I realized I wanted that to be my cause—and I wanted to be the translator of good, healthy Latin cuisine for our culture. Last year, I teamed up with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in their work toward a cause I feel so deeply about— helping schools and families prepare healthy meals so we can raise a healthier generation of children! Keep the Faith School nutrition professionals certainly have been busy the past couple of years! With new regulations from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 going into effect, many of you have been updating menus, seeking new products and trying to persuade your students to try new items. The good news is that I’ve heard many positive reports from district directors from all around the country. I know that last year was a challenging learning curve for both staff members and your customers, but as a new school year begins, I am optimistic that the months ahead will be easier, since the changes have become more familiar to all. I heard a great story from a school in Barren County, Ky. One day, the serving line in the cafeteria featured brown paper napkins instead of the usual white. One little boy immediately noticed the difference and exclaimed, “Awww man! Now we have whole-wheat napkins, too?!” I thought this was the perfect demonstration of how change can be hard—but one that also shows that kids are paying attention and making adjustments. I’m confident that this youngster had forgotten all about the white napkins when he returned to school last month, comfortable in the new “normal” at his cafeteria. While the hardest part of the lunch transition should be behind you, I know this year continues to present challenges, not just at lunchtime, but for breakfast service and for your a la carte offerings. Still, it’s more important now than ever to think creatively about having some flavorful fun! You want to ensure that kids actually eat the healthy meals you’re serving and start embracing nutritious habits that can last a lifetime. I Confess, I’m Impressed! In addition to serving as an Alliance spokesperson, I had a terrific opportunity to create a number of school lunch recipes that meet federal nutritional standards (see the box on page 56). It was an eye-opening experience to learn more about the obstacles that so many of you face in preparing and serving children healthy meals. I know that you don’t get nearly enough credit for all that you pull off with ancient equipment, tight budgets, negligible prep time and minimal culinary skills training! Through the recipe development process, we conducted pilots in five school districts in Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia, collecting feedback from students and cafeteria staff. Because of all that I learned from you, I think you will find that the recipes I developed for the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program can be prepared easily in school settings with typical budgetconstraints— and that they are 100% kid-approved! I really enjoyed the time that I spent working with the department of food and nutrition at Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools. What an amazing team! I spent time with the staff at Michael Krop Senior High School, working side by side with them to prepare the recipes we would test with the students. More than 3,000 students attend this high school, and the challenge to feed them all multiple entrée options within a threehour time period is incredible. In Miami-Dade, there are other professional chefs like me who “adopt” a school, working with staff and students on new breakfast and lunch recipes. I was able to give some pointers and teach skills to the foodservice staff and they, in turn, gave me a new perspective on how school kitchens operate. It is not an easy task, but they get it done every day with their diligence, dedication and passion for feeding children healthy meals! I was very honored to work with them to produce successful meals—the kids loved the new recipes! Kitchen Wisdom Anyone who visits a school kitchen can see what an impressive task it is to prepare school meals for hundreds of students every day. Especially when one considers that so many school nutrition employees have had little if any professional foodservice experience before coming to schools. We all know that many home cooks are among the most talented “chefs” producing meals today. Still, it’s also a fact that we, as a society, have become more reliant on highly processed foods and don’t have the inherent culinary skills of our grandparents and the generations that didn’t have access to the foods and technologies that are in widespread use today. So, you have a mandate to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into school meals. Transitioning away from pre-packaged, rethermable meals and back to actual recipe preparation is an essential step in creating menu items that are healthy and tasty. But fresh preparation— even so-called “speed-scratch” assembly—takes practice and some culinary skills building to do right. And this is where I can help. I’ve identified a few suggested areas for you and your cafeteria team to explore this year. Clearly your plates are already overflowing with new processes and practices to master, but I believe that stretching just a little bit more will be well worth the effort. Tap Into Local Food Talent I’m sure that, as readers of School Nutrition, you already are aware of the Chefs Move to School initiative. And this magazine has highlighted some of the successful partnerships that have developed— especially when it comes to using chefs to teach nutrition education and basic culinary skills to students. What about you? Has your operation reached out to connect with a local chef in your community? I believe there are many chefs who remain interested in volunteer opportunities with schools. My suggestion is that contact some local chefs about offering your staff an hour or so of free training in some culinary basics once or twice a year. Of course, any time you reach out with an unusual request, you might get a few polite rejections—but don’t be discouraged and just try the next person on your list. I know you will find the right fit with a local chef who will consider it an honor to be asked to share the benefits of their professional training with you. There are a number of tips and tricks that an expert chef can offer. Take, for example, knife skills. Large pieces of vegetables take longer to cook than smaller ones. Let’s say you are preparing sautéed carrots. If you aren’t using a cutting technique that ensures uniformity, you’re going to have some pieces that will be overdone, while others will be undercooked— and you’ll have a dissatisfied customer who will take a lot more persuading before agreeing to try those carrots again. Not only can a trained chef point this out to your staff, she or he can demonstrate the differences between large and small dice cuts or between the julienne and matchstick cuts. Now, you’ve had an important and helpful lesson that might only require one hour of volunteer time by the chef and your staff—but make a world of difference to your recipes and student acceptance of your dishes. While most of the members of your cafeteria may not be involved in developing new recipes, they can still benefit from understanding some of the principles that go into the process and contributing ideas toward a great end result. Buy-in from frontline staff is so important in making successful changes. An example of a change a chef might recommend would be using flavorful liquids, as they can help give some plain foods an added boost—rice made with a salt-free vegetable stock is going to have more flavor than when made with plain water. Do you know and understand the different benefits of dry-heat cooking versus moist-heat cooking? Why does a certain herb really enhance one dish but tastes terrible in another? Why is batch cooking important to guarantee highquality school meals? These are just a few examples of tips that a local chef can share. I know that when I visited Miami- Dade, I loved the challenge of adapting some of the chef techniques that I’d learned into the school environment, which is quite different from a restaurant kitchen! I always find that working with new people is the best way to get our creative juices flowing and to bring new ideas to the table. I’ve learned that students get very excited about trying the new dishes that can come out of such collaborations, so it is truly a win-win-win for foodservice staff, students and the chef. Oh, and did I mention that local press will “eat up” news of a partnership like this!? Make Prepared Foods Pop! Most school nutrition operations are not going to be prepping meals entirely from scratch. A number of meal components are going to be pre-cooked for convenience, cost and food safety reasons. But that doesn’t mean that the entire meal needs to be straight out of the freezer. This is where the elements of speedscratch come into play. Start thinking about using processed USDA Foods items and other prepared products as the base of a meal to which you try to add extra boosts of color, flavor and nutrition. For example, pre-made chicken fajita strips can be combined with freshly sautéed peppers, onions and herbs and served on a whole-grain tortilla. Wrap it in foil and it will look, smell and taste like it came from your favorite restaurant! A little spice or fresh herbs can go a long way in stimulating the taste buds and giving a pre-cooked protein a truly gourmet taste. So let’s spice it up! Think about adding rosemary to a pre-cooked chicken with tomato sauce. Lemon or lime juice sprinkled on chicken or fish can make any dish sizzle. And don’t forget the appeal of color. Parsley makes dishes pop with green, while red and yellow peppers bring life to the plate. Adding the deep blues and purples from blueberries, grapes and cabbage helps round out the rainbow on your serving line. [Editors’ Note: For more ideas and examples of school districts putting speed-scratch strategies to terrific use, see “Getting up to Speed,” October 2012. In addition, for more suggestions to engage all five senses in menu planning and meal preparation, see “Taste Rules— But Not Alone,” April 2012.] Organize for Order Efficiency is absolutely critical in school kitchens. You have a lot to do and a limited time to do it. As any chef in a busy restaurant will agree, organized work stations are key to a smooth operation. Are you finding that you are running around collecting different ingredients or tools all throughout the preparation process? A few minutes of station prep before you start meal prep can make a big difference in getting the job done with minimal stress—and reduce the risk of mistakes and potential food-safety vulnerabilities! Organizing your work by first assembling all of the ingredients you will need is essential. Pre-measuring the ingredients according to the recipe is also time efficient. Food safety is paramount, so ensure that you keep ingredients at the correct temperatures during preparation. Consider one example of how well this approach works: making tuna salad. You can gather all the ingredients, bowls and utensils ahead of time, store them on a cart and roll it into the walk-in cooler to store until you are ready to prepare; this will keep everything—including the ingredients and the tools—at a safe, cool temperature out of the danger zone. That’s just one example—but look at what kind of effect it can have! Even shaving off 30 seconds here and there adds up. Inspired? Use your next staff meeting to brainstorm this topic with your entire team, asking for their ideas for organizing the work space to improve efficiency. Be a Nudge Now, you gotta “sell” it! This magazine regularly suggests effective marketing strategies that should be a top priority in every school cafeteria. From samples to student advisory boards to dynamic signage, you need take advantage of multiple strategies to get your customer’s attention. But you also can “nudge” students to make healthier choices without them even realizing what you’re doing! I love the low/no cost ideas developed by researchers at Cornell University working in the field of behavioral economics. For example, make sure the healthiest options are placed where it is easiest to see and reach them, while less-nutritious options are moved behind or underneath the better-for-you alternatives. [Editors’ Note: For a list of 18 simple but effective ideas from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, see “Raise Your Cafeteria’s I.Q.,” June/July 2012.] Pass It On I can’t say it often enough: I know that school nutrition staff have a tough job and you don’t always get the thanks that you deserve. Well, I sincerely appreciate all of the work that you do, and I hope we can continue to work together to help give kids the foods they need while enjoying our work in the kitchen. (I’m actually working now on a series of training videos for schools, so I hope we will be seeing more of each other soon!) I am passionate about helping others who want to create beautiful meals; be it at schools, restaurants or in the home. Food is the essence of who we are and where we come from. It gives us energy, pleasure and life. If I can spread a little of this passion I have for good food, I will be content. Let’s have a wonderful and tasty year! Lorena Garcia is a chef, restaurateur, TV host and published author and one of the country’s leading Latina chefs. She will serve as a spokesperson for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and its Healthy Schools Program throughout 2013. Photos courtesy of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and Chef Lorena Garcia School-Tested, Kid-Approved Eager to try out Chef Garcia’s kid-tested, school-friendly recipes with your students? Simply join the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program at no cost to access these recipes, as well as many other great resources designed specifically for school nutrition operators. Chef Garcia developed four recipes that are perfect for school menus: ■ Bravo Pavo Rice Bowl with Bolognese Sauce ■ Bravo Pavo Rice Bowl with Meatballs ■ Chicken Rice Bowl ■ Pasta al Forno The recipes meet the Alliance’s science-based school nutrition guidelines, which meet or exceed the federal school meal standards. They emphasize lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lowfat and fat-free dairy, in addition to reducing total fat, saturated fat and sodium levels. They were tested in five school districts, with feedback collected from operators and students. In addition to recipes, you’ll find other tips and resources for boosting cafeteria participation. To learn more, visit www.HealthierGeneration.org.
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