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Gourmet on a budget: Chefs throw down their best $1.25 school lunch ideas in New London

New London — One way to get kids to eat their vegetables is to disguise them as dessert.

Executive chef Jessica Koslow, who owns Sqirl restaurant in Los Angeles, put mashed sweet potatoes in a chocolate-flavored smoothie and added strawberry jam for sweetness as she prepared lunch Saturday for the $1.25 Chef Throwdown at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

"I know kids pick around vegetables and also around fruit," Koslow said. "I wanted to make sure they were getting everything they need (nutritionally), and the way I could do it was sneaking sweet potato into the smoothie."

Koslow was among the dozen top chefs from around the country who cooked in the school cafeteria alongside staff from Brigaid, the for-profit company whose six chefs have been preparing fresh meals in New London Public Schools for the past two years. The challenge of the $1.25 Throwdown was to make an appetizing meal on the limited budget available under the National School Lunch Program while meeting the required nutritional standards. 

Chefs prepared 10 different meals that were served two at a time to 400 people during five lunch waves. Guests paid $50 per meal, which the organizers said would benefit New London public schools, then took their trays through the lunch line and critiqued every bite.

Though the event was mostly for fun and educational purposes, the panel of judges declared that the winning meal, which is expected to be added to New London's menu, was a fish sandwich by a group of three chefs from New York City's Ghetto Gastro.

The Whaling City's venture into chef-created school meals is receiving national attention. On Saturday, a crew was taping the $1.25 Throwdown for a segment expected to air on CBS Sunday Morning in the fall.

During the first wave of meals, Koslow served the sneaky smoothies with a Monte Cristo sandwich of fresh baked, whole wheat sourdough bread, turkey breast, cheese, egg and tomato jam. She had started her meal prep a day earlier, milling the flour for the bread and brining and curing the turkey. She whipped up a fresh tomato jam for the sandwich in another effort to make veggies enticing.

"It was fairly creative," said one of the official judges, New London fifth-grader Titus Olson. "I know kids will like it, because it doesn't step out of my comfort zone."

Another judge, food writer Howie Kahn, said the bread was impressively tasty and crisp and the tomato jam incredible.

"When you have technique, it's amazing what you can cook," said Kahn, a contributing editor for the Wall Street Journal Magazine. "That's a $15 sandwich in New York."

Some adult taste-testers would have preferred knowing the ingredients of their meals before they tried them. Reminiscent of the old "mystery meat" joke about cafeteria lunches, Betty Mui said she couldn't tell what kind of cheese or meat was in the Monte Cristo.

"I like it, but I don't know what's in it," said Mui, who came from Brooklyn with her sister, Amy Mui, to support a friend who was involved in the Throwdown.

At a nearby table, Shalimar Ramos Wuyke, who works in the New London schools' central office and said she is a "big fan" of Brigaid, brought her visiting niece Silvia Fabrega from Costa Rica to the event. They split their meals in half so they could both try each dish.

"I liked everything. I loved both," Wuyke said. She suspected students might find the Mapo Tofu lasagna too gingery. She loved the smoothie, but said, "If you tell the kids what's in it, they might be hesitant to try it."

Chef Dan Giusti, founder of Brigaid, said the schools actually get $3.31 to produce each meal, but that covers labor, maintenance, food and other expenses. He said the funding comes with 82 pages of mandatory nutritional guidelines.  

The program, which provides free meals to all students and a $5 community meal on Wednesday evenings, has had its successes and failures, Giusti said.

"Sometimes you serve it to a 7-year-old and he spits it out," Giusti said. "That's the reality of it."

Chef Mei Lin, the winner of Bravo TV network's "Top Chef" Season 12 competition, served up the Mapo Tofu lasagna, which is a meal she is perfecting for the restaurant she's opening in California. She built the dish's layers with pasta, tofu, parmesan cheese, shitake mushrooms, eggplant and oyster sauce, which she noted contains no oyster at all.

"I kept it vegetarian for low cost," she said. "I had to convert the pasta to whole wheat. I was a little scared about the kids. I didn't make it too spicy."

Judge Shawn Brooks, a junior at the Science & Technology Magnet School, had never tried tofu before. He gave the lasagna a 19 out of 20.

"I liked the presentation," he said. "You could tell it was a lot of ingredients but it was really kept together."

He said it was a bit spicy but the accompanying watermelon with lime juice and mint helped cool it down.

Also on the menu Saturday were Italian fried rice prepared by San Francisco chef Stuart Brioza; chicken carnitas tacos by Washington, D.C., chef Jeremiah Langhorne, potato dumplings by Chicago chef David Posey; a vegetable burrito by chef James Wayman from the Oyster Club, Engine Room and Grass & Bone in Mystic; a Futomaki roll by Brandon Rodgers of San Francisco; and roasted chicken by Chef Jeremy Fox of Santa Monica, Calif. 


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