Culinary Boot Camp
June 21st, 2010 · 5 Comments · Posted in school food
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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
Let’s review what we have learned
So much, so much
Knife skills, sauces, mis en place
Above all, Remain calm!
Sanitation, grains, legumes
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!