Chefs transforming New London school lunches

Cafeteria staff, from left, chef April Kindt, Emily Dickinson and John LaRose, prepare lunch at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. Friday's entree was curried chicken with brown rice and roasted sweet potatoes. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — With two professional chefs in place and four more expected to be hired by year’s end, the New London school district is in the midst of what some have a called a food revolution.

Under the guidance of Chef Daniel Giusti, meals at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and New London High School are something students say they have never seen the likes of in a school cafeteria.

“The food didn’t taste this good last year,” said 11-year-old Fortune Adekoya, finishing up a plate of chicken curry, brown rice and roasted sweet potatoes.

Adekoya is among other students to offer unfiltered opinions about the new and greatly expanded lunch menu at Bennie Dover — a menu that includes baked New England sole and spiced chicken tacos on corn tortillas with Spanish rice.

On Friday, in addition to a soup and sandwich or salad option, meals were served with sides of either raw kale salad, three-bean salad or potato salad. For a fruit component, students had the choice of an apple or pears poached in green tea.

The chicken curry is clearly one of bigger hits with the sometimes finicky eaters. Both Adekoya and Ash Darrow, 12, agreed that the turkey chili and the barbeque chicken and pizza are at the top of the list. At the bottom of the list, according to Angel Zayas, 12, was the turkey meatballs, something he called “terrible.”

Giusti said he and the new cooks are continually thinking of ways to change up the menus based on student input while keeping within the federal nutritional guidelines and the budget — which amounts to $1.35 per meal including the 27 cents for milk.

There have been hits and misses. Giusti said the butternut squash soup did not go over well, probably because of the consistency.

“They hated it — thought it was revolting,” Giusti said.

It’s no longer on the menu.

Giusti, former chef at the prestigious Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, is accustomed to high standards and left the restaurant business to start the company Brigaid and a Chefs in Schools program with the intention of transforming school lunch menus.

The school district signed a contract with Brigaid earlier this year with the agreement they also hire six full-time chefs — one for each of the schools. The cost of the six chefs alone will be about $360,000 annually. The district has agreed to pay Brigaid $130,000 for each of the first two years, with Superintendent Manuel Rivera promising outside funds to supplement the costs. He already has secured a $100,000 grant from Target for the program.

One of the goals to help fund the program is an increase in the number of meals served, since all the meals in the district are federally funded because of the high number of students from lower-income families. Collectively the district serves about 3,300 students.

Giusti said it’s still early but expects numbers to grow. New London High School’s new chef, Ryan Kennedy, served 864 people in a day this week – probably a record.

Kennedy joined the school district from Coffee’s in Old Lyme. April Kindt, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is the chef at Bennie Dover.

Giusti said several hundred people have applied for the jobs but he’s been critical and is looking for the right mix of skills in the kitchen and character — someone who buys into the overall philosophy of “It’s not about you, it’s about the kids.” He said he found that in Kennedy and Kindt.

Kennedy and Kindt are expected to take control of their own kitchens, train staff and create menus while communicating with students to understand what is or is not working.

All meals will adhere to federal nutritional guidelines, but Giusti said his real goal is to prepare delicious food that students will eat.

“Kids don’t care about the nutritional guidelines,” Giusti said. “You need to just make food that they like. You’re never going to win an argument with a kid that it’s nutritious so you need to eat it.”

There are also the logistical challenges of getting hundreds of students in and out of a cafeteria within 22 minutes, the allotted time for lunch. Giusti said he would like to see that expanded but understands there are limitations to the changes that can be made in one year.

Other changes have occurred behind the scenes. The cooks have scrapped processed foods in favor of meals mostly prepared from scratch. Storage areas have had to be expanded to accommodate an increase of fresh produce. The segregated trays have been replaced with plates and bowls.

Jahari Nance, 12, a student at Bennie Dover, while snacking on a watermelon pop, called the lunch service “a real big change for the good.”

Giusti said there have been tough days and unforeseen challenges but, “you talk to one kid who says ‘thank you very much for this food, it’s amazing.’ That’s enough for me.”

g.smith@theday.com

Cafeteria worker Emily Dickinson, right, serves lunch to students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016.  Friday's entree was curried chicken with brown rice and roasted sweet potatoes. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Cafeteria worker Emily Dickinson, right, serves lunch to students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. Friday's entree was curried chicken with brown rice and roasted sweet potatoes. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Chef Daniel Giusti, left, chats with chef April Kindt between lunch waves at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Chef Daniel Giusti, left, chats with chef April Kindt between lunch waves at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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