The Gourmet Chef de School Cafeteria

And you thought cooking for a Michelin food critic would be the ultimate challenge of a culinary career. Gourmet chef Ann Cooper has done haute cuisine; now she's up against much tougher critics - 4,000 children under the age of 12. At the pinnacle of her culinary career, Cooper is turning her talents to revamping the public school lunch program in Berkeley, CA.

Chef School Dreamin'

If you're heading to chef school, you're probably eagerly awaiting the opportunity to unleash your creativity in the kitchen. But the school cafeteria? Cooper began her career as a gourmet chef-in-training, honing her skills on cruise ships before establishing her own restaurant in Telluride, which earned her distinction as one of Gourmet magazine's 'up-and-coming chefs.'

A Culinary Career That Matters

Then her social conscience came calling, in the form of The Chez Panisse Foundation's School Lunch Initiative. Cooper had spent her culinary career cooking extravagant meals for the rich and famous at disposable-income prices - she "didn't want to do that anymore." Berkeley's public school students, fed on a government-issued diet of deep-fried chicken nuggets and frozen burritos, needed her more.

As executive chef at Vermont's Putney Inn, Cooper created her own brand of New American cuisine. Now she's drawing on the same creativity to create wholesome school breakfasts and lunches on a $3.50 per student budget.

Let Them Eat Blue Cheese, Walnut, and Roasted Onion Pizza on a Spelt Crust

Cooper is one of several influential gourmet chefs to bring New American cuisine--specifically, its emphasis on wholesome, fresh foods--to those who need it the most: children of low-income families. Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, who is pioneering the Berkeley public school initiative, hopes to teach children "the vital relationship of food to agriculture and of food to culture, and how food affects the quality of our everyday lives."

As these gourmet chefs have found, cooking exquisite food isn't the ultimate expression of a successful culinary career. The real joy of cooking is taking what you've learned in chef school and years of culinary experimentation, and enriching the lives of our most precious diners.

  • "The Lunchroom Rebellion: An Haute-cuisine Chef Goes Back to School," The New Yorker (Sept. 4, 2006)