Helping Schools’ Chefs Find Alternatives to Frozen Pizza

Posted on Oct 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

Yana Paskova for The New York Times

The chef Mark Barrett in the cafeteria of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Mr. Barrett, who works at Henry’s Restaurant in Manhattan, is a host of a training session for employees of the city’s school cafeterias on Wednesday, intended to help them learn to prepare more healthful meals for students.


 Mark Barrett, the 37-year-old chef at Henry’s Restaurant on the Upper West Side, has big ambitions for the $20,000 Hobart food mixer that sits, unused, in the kitchen of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. “Instead of serving frozen pizza out of a box, they could be making their own dough,” Mr. Barrett suggested during a tour of the school kitchen this week.

He also has big ambitions for the school’s head chef, Larry Cowell, who is one of about 40 employees of school cafeterias scheduled to attend a training session with Mr. Barrett on Wednesday sponsored by the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food.

“We’ll see you there, right, Larry?” Mr. Barrett asked Mr. Cowell.

“Um, I think I have a doctor’s appointment that day,” Mr. Cowell said, half-joking.

Hard to blame him for being a little skeptical. After three decades of cooking in New York schools, Mr. Cowell might well be wary of the latest in a string of outsiders swooping in with suggestions about overhauling the frozen foods that feed thousands of students daily.

New York City schools have already made sweeping changes in their menus over the past few years: serving only low-fat milk and whole-wheat buns and breads; installing salad bars; and replacing canned vegetables with frozen ones, which are lower in sodium.

The contents of the vending machines in the DeWitt Clinton basement cafeteria, typical of city schools since March, looked like what the Automat might have offered had it been taken over by Canyon Ranch: Blueberry Pomegranate Trail Mix Crunch, Organic Berry Water, Sensible Foods Crunch Dried Snacks. Aha, there was one throwback to the bad old days of snacking: a Pop-Tart. Closer inspection revealed that it was a whole-grain Pop-Tart. (Is nothing sacred?)

The city’s schools have also benefited from the celebrity of devoted players like Bill Telepan, owner and chef of Telepan, who worked with Michelle Obama to create a template for her Chefs Move to Schools program, which encourages chefs to adopt public schools to educate about healthy cuisine.

In the past year, the number of New York chefs committed to the cause has doubled, Mr. Telepan said, to about 20, including names like Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto and Jennifer McCoy of Craft.

With school food an officially sexy subject, volunteering in the cafeteria may well become one more station of the cross for aspiring celebrity chefs, along with televised competitions and spots on local news.

At DeWitt Clinton the other day, Mr. Barrett tasted a bean stew being offered for lunch — a recipe provided by the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food — and nodded with tepid approval. Over about 10 minutes, the ratio of students in the line picking reheated frozen pizza over the bean stew was roughly a gazillion to one. But most of them also grabbed fruit (no other option is available for dessert), and one boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt piled his plate so high with baby carrots from the salad bar that they nearly toppled.

“Some food tastes good,” he said. “This food tastes like it is good.” Michael Pollan might have wept.

At the training Wednesday, Mr. Barrett hopes to enhance some of the cooks’ techniques, so the healthy plant-based recipes the coalition suggests will taste as tempting as possible.

“Kids won’t eat healthy if it tastes like a cardboard box,” Mr. Barrett said. “Simple techniques, like toasting the spices, goes a long way.”

What might be even more effective to get students to try new things like the bean stew: getting rid of the pizza.

The elegant cuisine already on offer at DeWitt Clinton — wheat berries were mixed in with the rice served that day — is in stark contrast with the typically institutional feel of the school itself, which saw fighting so severe this month that the police were called in and issued several notices of disorderly conduct to students. Budget cuts, student violence, overworked teachers — those are intractable problems. Food, on the other hand — that can be fixed, with training, with simple shifts in what gets ordered, with will and good will.

Occasionally, food and violence have been known to mix in high schools: The chaos at DeWitt Clinton that led to the police visit started out as a food fight in the cafeteria. On a Facebook page called “I survived DeWitt Clinton 10/1/10,” a student named Jazmin Castillo wrote, “It was mad scary, and crazy.” She got milk in her boot, she said, and “got hit by a pear at the food fight.”

It could have been worse. It could have been a Pop-Tart.