The Secret Lives of School Cafeteria Chefs

Cooking for a crowd is always a challenge for chefs. Restaurants must produce large amounts of delicious food in a timely manner, with the help of a team of chefs striving to please discriminating diners. Providing 36 million school cafeteria meals per day to children, however, presents additional challenges, to say the least.

Providing Tasty and Healthy Food

If the occasional customer in a restaurant can be overly particular about his or her food, imagine trying to please the palates of schoolchildren. Kids are notoriously picky eaters and many have a sweet tooth or three. Students are expecting food that is delicious, but parents want their children's food to be nutritious.

With an obesity epidemic sweeping the nation, healthier food in schools is vital to help combat the problems of childhood obesity and diabetes. School chefs are on the front lines, establishing menus and producing food that is both appetizing and healthy.

Chefs Overhaul School Meals

New York City, providing 850,000 meals a day to schoolchildren, hired an executive chef to oversee all aspects of school food. David Berkowitz used his culinary experience to change menus and recipes, to improve production systems, to train school chefs, and to follow USDA nutritional and food safety guidelines. Ann Cooper, also an executive chef and current director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, has transformed school lunches by stressing fresh, organic food from regional sources, and by emphasizing nutrition education.

Chefs Also Reckon With Food Allergies

It's also up to the cafeteria chef and school staff to prevent reactions in students with food allergies. Chefs must know which ingredients to avoid by carefully scrutinizing labels on all culinary products. At least one area in the kitchen must be set aside for the preparation of allergy-free food, to avoid cross-contamination.

Although being a school chef is demanding, it is a rewarding culinary profession as well. With millions of children receiving lunch and sometimes breakfast and snacks at school, parents and teachers are relying on qualified chefs to provide nutrition to this developing sector of the population.