The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

On Being a School Chef

May 12th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Posted in Berkeley, kids, school food

Guest Post

By Bonnie Christensen

Chefs learn how to work with a variety of foods in a variety of stages using a broad range of approaches and techniques. By learning how to cook and handle different foods under many different circumstances chefs develop the critical thinking skills they need to apply to whatever situation comes up.  They also learn how to create recipes that people will like based on ingredients, budget, availability and customer taste.

Foods are perishable and cooking has to happen as close to consumption as possible to get the best results.  Ever try to cook for 20 for
Thanksgiving–all those side dishes, everyone’s likes and dislikes to consider, dessert, coffee, wine, milk for the kids, setting the table ,
making the shopping list, buying the groceries and preparing the food ON TIME, and serving everything HOT at the same time?  Now imagine doing that for 8,000 people every day.  What if the chicken does not come in?  What if fresh asparagus is suddenly available. Can we use it? You would hate to pass up fresh asparagus. 

What if the fresh broccoli is not available because of an early frost?  What if the meat company sends turkey meat ground to a puree instead of a course grind like hamburger meat for the meat loaf? You figure out how to use it but you don’t have enough bread crumbs. What do you do instead? 

Chefs have the background and exposure and experience to expect that things will not go according to plan, as well as the critical thinking skills and knowledge to solve those problems whenever they come up.  Chefs know how to handle foods and pair foods so that they can get the best and most out of them in a way that is pleasing to the consumer.  We are trained to think about how to make it better, how to get the most out of it and how to please, please, please, the customer.  For chefs it is about making the yummiest food ever!

Also, chefs learn how to choose ingredients, where to purchase them, how to get the best price, how to use every part of the ingredient so that nothing is thrown away and you don’t have to purchase items unnecessarily–like stock for soups and sauces.  I never buy chicken stock at home.  I roast a chicken once a week.  I make stock out of the bones and carcass.  It takes 10 minutes of prep and finishing time, 45 minutes to cook.  If I have leftover chicken, I make chicken salad for my husband’s lunch or I freeze the meat and pull it out after I have accumulated enough to make enchiladas. Or I cut it up and put it in fresh pasta pesto.

How do you know when various fruits and vegetables are ripe?  How far in advance can this stuff be brought into the kitchen? What do you do when there isn’t enough or there is too much?  How do you handle that without costing yourself more money? 

When someone says they don’t like the food, what questions do you ask to figure out what they didn’t like to determine how to prepare it next time so that they will like it?  Was it texture, flavor, too spicy, not spicy, not sweet, too sour, too crunchy? Did it hurt the top of their mouth to eat it? Did they need juice to wash it down?  They have never seen it before, they don’t like the color.  They thought the yogurt was sour milk so they were afraid to taste it.

Or problems like, how do you make enough pasta sauce if the pot you have is not big enough and you don’t have time to do it twice?  What are your options?  Chefs have to be creative, they have to adapt to whatever set of circumstances arise.  The very nature of cooking with perishable ingredients requires urgency.  Decisions have to be made quickly, problems have to be resolved immediately.  The stakes are high because food and labor are so expensive; you have to work disciplined, creatively, and within specific boundaries.  You are constantly being forced to think outside the box under lots of pressure. 

Dieticians don’t work that way. You are constantly adjusting for the variables: These canned tomatoes are not sweet and very acidic. Those  tomatoes are sweet, but not balanced enough with acid. What do you do?  These peaches are mealy. What do you do?  I need to add grains to the menu because I need at least two grains per meal period. How can I do that?  What do I do with the leftover hamburger buns? How can I minimize the production kitchen’s work load and better utilize the staff at the sites?  What else can I make in the rice cooker besides rice? 

Sometimes you have to come up with your own recipe. For instance, I wanted hoisin sauce on the menu but couldn’t find any that did not have have high fructose corn syrup in it.  I bought some hoisin sauce, tasted it and read the ingredients on the back, and used that information to make my own.  These are the sorts of things a chef can figure out because of the exposure and long-time practical, hands-on experience they have.  What makes one chef better than another is their ability to adapt and respond quickly and effectively (assuming of course they have talent).

Chefs know how to season and pair foods, they know how to put together menus because they are taking into account all these things based on their living knowledge of food and the many, many ways to handle it. 

A good coach knows how to identify talent in new players, to put together the right combination of talent, to train and coach raw talent into hard-earned skill, discipline and drive.  And a great coach provides inspiration that moves the team to heights that were unimagined.  This is what chefs do in their kitchens. 

And if you think it is more fun in the kitchen than it is on the training field, you are mistaken.  The work is hard and dangerous.  You better love it if you want to do it.  And unlike out on the field, there is no glory, especially in a school lunch program.  No one wants to pay for it. No one wants to take time for it. Big companies want to unload their unusable products on us….It
goes on and on.

Bonnie Christensen is executive chef for the Berkeley Unified School District, Berkeley, CA.

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