The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Culinary Boot Camp

June 21st, 2010 · 5 Comments · Posted in school food

Chefs confer over a recipe

Chefs confer over a recipe

 I was in Colorado recently to witness part of a “culinary boot camp” where lunch ladies and food service directors from around the state took part in four days of deep immersion learning how to better use their meager finances and how to cook food from scratch, rather than with frozen convenience foods.

Lots to learn about running a school kitchen

Lots to learn about running a school kitchen

The Colorado Health Foundation is funding four of these sessions in all, using $400,000 in federal stimulus money channeled through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. I was present for part of the first session, held in Adams County outside Denver. About 35 students were enrolled. Divided into two groups, they each spent half the day in class, half the day in the kitchen.

Chef instructor Kate Adamick

Chef instructor Kate Adamick

The classroom sessions are taught by chef and school food consultant Kate Adamick. If you read much about school food issues, you will recognize the name. Her byline appears over articles in the Atlantic magazine’s online “food channel.” Adamick preaches the gospel of universal free breakfast for all children, not only as a social justice issue, but because it is a great way to generate cash for school food programs. She also believes schools need to eliminate flavored milk and other sugary foods and kick the processed food habit. She teaches school cooks how to use government commodities to make meals from scratch.

Adamick thinks schools could get by on the money they already have for food, if they had more money for the equipment and training they need to cook fresh.

Andrea Martin explains the prep list

Andrea Martin explains the prep list

The kitchen sessions are taught by New York chef Andrea Martin and three assistants. Martin has been developing these boot camps for years with Adamick. They also work with schools in Santa Barbara County, CA. And they were involved in the famous makeover of school meals in Berkeley, CA, working alongside Ann Cooper and Alice Waters. In fact, you can see strains of the Berkeley program running through these boot camps, as when the discussion turns to writing a four-week rotating menu plan. It’s categorized very much the same way as in Berkeley.

In the kitchen, the students alternate between 15-minute demonstrations of cooking techniques and actually cooking meal components. A buffet breakfast and lunch each day were prepared by the students.

Lunch ladies paid close attention

Lunch ladies paid close attention

Lunch ladies rank somewhere below custodial staff in the school pecking order. Yet they are expected to perform miracles in the kitchen, turning pennies into full-blown meals. Some were traumatized by the act of cutting food with real knives. But they were all eager to learn. The oldest among them was 78 and still going strong.

How to cut butternut squash

How to cut butternut squash

In boot camp, chefs learn how to turn a menu plan into a meal for hundreds of people. One of the first concepts turned out to be a bit difficult to pronounce: mis en place. Literally translated from the French, that means “put in place,” but for a chef it’s more a universal credo and overriding principle, meaning to have everything ready and close at hand before you start cooking, to have a plan.

Sorting chicken pieces

Sorting chicken pieces

Kitchen hygeine and avoiding cross-contamination are emphasized repeatedly in these classes. This session on handling chicken took me back to my week in Berkeley, where I spent my first day sorting 1,400 pounds of government commodity chicken for roasting. This chicken would find its way into three different dishes. No nuggets here. The finished spicy drumsticks and asian-style thighs were my favorites–cooked to perfection.

Pulling together to put out a meal

Pulling together to put out a meal

You couldn’t help but be impressed by the commaraderie among the kitchen ladies. They were always joking with each other, rubbing shoulders, patting each other on the back. They made kitchen work look fun. The white chef’s jackets instill a sense of pride and professionalism.

Their slogan for the camp was, “We Love Math,” meaning all the fractions cooks need to learn and use every day. On graduation day, they received framed certificates to the tune of Pomp and Circumstances. The dish washers recieved big bunches of flowers and huge applause. Then for Kate Adamick and Andrea Martin the class sang this self-composed “culinary boot camp fight song.”

I reprint it here for historical purposes. Sing it to the tune of Camptown Races:

Verse One:

Culinary book camp’s almost done

So long, farwell

Can’t believe we’re nearly through

We’re still scared of you

So many that we want to thank

Live Well, Colorado

The Health Foundation really rocks

I hope I framed that right


Chef Kat’s really great

Even when she’s screaming ‘Don’t be late!’

Then there’s Andrea and her crew

You know that they are cool

Verse Two:

Let’s review what we have learned

So much, so much

Knife skills, sauces, mis en place

Above all, Remain calm!

Sanitation, grains, legumes

Asian barbecue

Taste components and lest we forget

We Love Math!


Say no to chocolate milk and

Toss those nuggets out

School lunch will never be the same

We love our kids so cook from scratch!

Kitchen ladies are tight

Kitchen ladies are tight

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  • ChefDebbie

    Great post! Our local school district is proud to announce the addition of Philly cheesesteaks and chicken wings to the school lunch menu for the fall. There seems to be no effort in our state of SC to offer healthy food to our school children. What can we do????

  • Lisa R Suriano

    This is absolutely fantastic and brilliant!!! How do we expand this program to more states?

  • Chef Kate

    Nice story, Ed. It was nice to have you with us.

    Just one note for your readers: Those you call “kitchen ladies,” we call “Lunch Teachers™”. We at Cook for America™ Culinary Boot Camps believe it’s time to stop segregating the education that takes place in the cafeteria from that which takes place during the rest of the school day!

  • Denise Stowe

    I was just reading about your camp this summer in Santa Maria Ca. I work for Los Alamos Sch and was interested in finding out when you will be haveing another camp in this area?

  • Ed Bruske

    Denise, the person you want to talk to is Kate Adamick. Do a Google search for her and I’m sure you’ll find her website and contact info.