Monday, January 10, 2011

Why aren't schools destination-jobs for chefs?

This fall we had an unexpected transition in our school nutrition department, and we had to hire a new director. I believe in school nutrition. I believe in aggressively supporting the best school nutrition program possible, so I faithfully posted an opening for someone who is certified in institutional food preparation or who is a certified dietitian. In thinking about the complexity of the state and federal regulations, the associated paperwork, and the knowledge-based a director needs to effectively lead a school nutrition program, I didn't hesitate to think twice about the type of person I wanted to attract to the position: someone with a certification in institutional food preparation, who has the necessary sanitation certifications, and who has experience perhaps in a nursing home, hospital cafeteria, or some other place where there are ever-present nutrition regulations and production paperwork besides.

What I fell into, however, was not what I was planning on: an actual chef, like the ones who wear chef uniforms. I noticed very early on that this person was different. I think the first indication I had was when I "caught" him making the ranch dressing from scratch. I engaged with curiosity and caution in that I was worried about the usual stuff: increased labor hours, nutritional value, storage, the cumulative cost of all the scratch ingredients compared to the cost of the ready-made product, sanitation, etc. He looked back at me dumbfounded: "It takes five minutes, I'm using lowfat buttermilk and lowfat sour cream, and if I make it this way, it costs 7 cents less per ounce. Wanna taste the quality?" I told him great job, then walked walked away excited for lunch.

From there, unusual and unexpected lunch items began appearing in our 30-day menu rotation: homemade lasagna, real mashed potatoes, chicken teriyaki stir-fry with fresh veggies, actual roasted chicken, real-handformed-homemade meatballs. Student participation has grown by unprecedented numbers, community members have taken note and complimented our program, and teacher participation has increased. When's the last time you've had a parent give you an unprovoked compliment on school lunch?

This scenario raises some interesting questions.

  • Why didn't I immediately post a job opening for a chef? (This seems obvious in hindsight.)
  • Why have a 30 day menu rotation if it doesn't match the basic, scratch-style ingredients that may be available locally?
  • How do the skills and dispositions of chefs from the competitive world of restaurants differ from the skills and dispositions of certified dietitians/institutional food prep people? How do those skills and dispositions align to our goals for school nutrition?
  • What type of nutrition and regulation training should I be thinking about to support a chef in dealing with the over-regulated world of school nutrition? 
  • Why isn't there more overlap between the dietitian/institutional food prep world and the world of culinary arts? 
  • To what extent does the entire system of institutional food prep support or undermine the fine balance of having the capacity to serve high quality food that meets state and federal regulations?
  • Does the certification of dietitian or degree for institutional food prep unintentionally support the unfortunate world of heat-n-serve/pre-packaged food because they (the dietitian or institutional food prep person)  don't have the whole-scale culinary skills that restaurant chefs must have to turn an profit and to properly run a scratch kitchen?
  • Why aren't schools destination jobs for chefs? 

I'm not "plugged in" to the world of school nutrition, but it seems like there is an endorsed paradigm of school nutrition that may be at the expense possibilities, which might include (I can't believe that this doesn't seem obvious to us all) employing restaurant chefs to lead our school nutrition programs. The question is,  "With the proper scaffolding to support adherence to and proper execution of state and federal regulations, can chefs effectively lead a school nutrition program?" My answer? Definitely. Now, the challenge is to figure out how to support chefs so that they aren't doomed to fail by means of regulation and paperwork avalanche.

Any suggestions or thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. You have posed some very interesting questions. As I ponder some of those thoughts and questions, I wonder why culinary arts and certified nutrition and dietitian should be considered an oxymoron. Meals that have quality ingredients and quality taste can promote healthy eating habits. For example, there are now less students sitting in the hallways eating bags of junk food.

    Due to the stringent state and federal regulations, it has become easier to buy prepared food that lists all of the ingredients and their quantities. Programs that allow a chef to input the amount of ingredients and then calculate the quantity of the various ingredients, can be used; however, it is one more step that takes more labor hours. Once that step has been done for a meal, the meal can be used numerous times. I don't see that the regulations should in anyway squelch creativity.
    Kudos to the chef that is willing to take on the challenge of combining creativity, quality ingredients, quality nutrition, and quality taste. We are seeing it in action.