We work as a team during our sessions. We share ideas, information and techniques. Open discussion about any culinary issues or concerns participants might be confronted with when cooking in their kitchens is encouraged. This open forum structure has been instrumental in building a sense of empowerment and pride within team members and I really believe this positive energy transfers back to their schools.
The excitement that can be generated from people feeling that they’ve had influence on the food being served on our menus has benefited our program. When crew members can say they’ve had a hand in making something they’re proud of and with a smile on their face it’s become the best way to get others to try it. This is how T.A.G.G.E.D. has proven to be infectious and very influential.
Continuing with the competitive nature and theme of the game of tag and Home Base there have been some challenges proposed to the schools kitchens within the district and we’ve had fun with the T.A.G.G.E.D approach in a few different ways.
1) Pizza Pizzam challenge–
We were having some inconsistencies among all of our schools with our pizzas. When I was visiting one of our High Schools I was really impressed with how great their pizza looked. I took a picture with my phone and showed everyone at the office. I started thinking about how I can get everyone to begin making pizzas look as good or better. I sent all of the managers an email explaining that they’ve just been T.A.G.G.E.D. In this case “freeze tag” and in order for them to defrost and get to Home Base they needed to supply their own picture of a pizza cooked at their school that looked as good or better than the picture I sent. I asked the cafeteria manager from the high school to write to everyone explaining what steps they took to create such a good-looking pie, I also supplied a few trouble shooting steps to consider. The excitement and friendly competition this created was great! One of our Home Base cooks was so inspired to prove to me that she could make a better pizza that she sent me photos and samples (thanks Angela) of some very unique pizza such as a dessert pizza with fresh fruit and some amazing breakfast pizzas. The responses started rolling in from others, and with each submission I’d share with the group and explain why they were still frozen, defrosting or completely thawed out.
2) Cooks 2 Schools–
There’s been a huge push with getting Chefs into schools. I love this idea and we’ve had a few really amazing Chefs come to help us out with some events such as the James Beard award-winning Chef, Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill (for more about this story please read “Chefs to Schools” below). Chefs can be extremely busy people and while I enjoy networking with them, and having them interested in Child Nutrition is a great thing, I really think it makes more sense to try to get our cooks communicating with the students more. After we prepared the butternut squash soup at one of our Home Base sessions we sent some to a couple of schools that a few of the participants work at. The next day we set up a display table and offered samples of the soup for the students to try. Who would have thought high school kids would really like butternut squash!? The cooks were excited, maybe a little nervous at first but I think it really felt good for them to see how much the kids liked the soup they prepared. It’s also great that the students are seeing our kitchen staff being able to prepare something different, delicious and the hope is that they’ll now have a bit more faith that we can do it again. Usually visiting Chefs will come for a day or two maybe and although we may be working on a project together the students know they wont be back for a while. Being able to invite Chefs to help me by sharing some of their knowledge with our staff is the connection I’d like to explore more in the near future. I believe we can develop our Home Base Cooks as Home Base heros.
3) Chefs 2 Schools
During the first year of working with the Child Nutrition Department for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Michelle Obama and the Lets Move! campaign presented a national competition. “Recipes For Healthy Kids” was the name of the challenge that was presented and the idea was to get Chefs working with Child Nutrition Departments to form lasting relationships. The goal of the challenge was to increase the excitement of nutritious school lunch and come up with some delicious creative recipes that schools would be able to actually use. I absolutely loved the idea of this challenge and wrote letters to as many local Chefs that I knew of and personally delivered the letters to the back doors of their restaurants. Andrea Reusing, Ricky Moore, Nancie McDermott, and Baker-extraordinaire Abraham Palmer.
I had the honor to work on this project with Chef Ricky Moore (http://www.chefrickymoore.com/), owner of Saltbox seafood joint in Durham, NC and a previous Iron Chef America contestant. He helped me prepare a baked chick pea hush puppy. Chef Ricky has a daughter that attends one of our elementary schools and he mentioned how much kids love dipping hand-held foods. The recipe was similar to falafel but I thought it might make sense if we could give a more local twist to the name. We paired the hush puppies with a cucumber yogurt sauce. I thought it was a great success and had a blast working with Chef Ricky.
Another Chef/cookbook author I had the honor to work with on this project is Nancie McDermott (http://www.nanciemcdermott.com/) Mrs. McDermott helped me brainstorm a sweet potato-blueberry oat bar. I really wanted to utilize the state food of sweet potatoes in one of the recipes being submitted. There was also a boat load of North Carolina frozen blueberries in the main warehouse that had to be utilized. Mrs. McDermott has traveled extensively in Thailand and is an American Southern baking aficionado. Her cookbook Southern Cakes was released around the same time as this challenge was presented.
I had the great pleasure to work with Chef/Restaurant owner/Cook Book Author Andrea Reusing on two recipes. One of these recipes won us a semi-finalist spot in the whole grains category of this national recipe challenge which was extremely exciting. We prepared a delicious red lentil soup for Carrboro elementary that the students gobbled right up but the ringer was Stir Fried Green Rice, Eggs and Ham. We enlisted the help of Baker Abrahams daughter as well as Abraham to help us out on this team and we presented this dish at McDougle Elementary for the entire school as well as some really important guests from the USDA. The dish’s name was whimsical and fun, a take on the book Green Eggs & Ham by Dr Seuss. Chopped spinach was what made the rice green. We also prepared the recipe for the Carrboro Farmers Market trying to get public votes which was another part of the challenge.
4) Heart Health Awareness Month-
Building a relationship with Rex Hospital During Heart Health Awareness Month was the beginning to a great partnership. Rex Hospital has been making some big moves in the right direction with a focus on delicious and more nutritious food being served in the cafeteria. Rex pulling their fryers from the cafeterias was a big deal at the time and they generated a decent amount of buzz for making such a bold move. In becoming more curious about the program I noticed some of the other great foods they prepare for their staff, guests and patients. They serve a wheatberry chili that is out of control delicious and it got me thinking a dish like this would be a great way to introduce students to some other whole grain options.
I somehow was able to talk the director Jim McGrody, Chef and Author of What We Feed Our Patients (www.whatwefeedourpatients.com) and creator of the culinary training program for their staff which they call Black Hat Chefs program (www.blackhatchefs.com) as well as the Executive Chef for Rex, Ryan Conklin (www.newschoolhospitalfood.wordpress.com) to come help me out at East Chapel Hill High School. We prepared the vegetarian wheatberry chili recipe and offered samples and information as well as visual samples of other types of grains.
Hearing some of the positive feedback from the students was great and I think the Chef’s really enjoyed it as well.