Where's the latest hotspot for a gourmet meal? Seattle schools

Oct 10, 2011

“We want them to expand their palates ..."

When you hear the words “school lunch,” it’s doubtful you think of mouth-watering cuisine. A group of gourmet chefs in Seattle wants to change that.

They’re developing recipes fit for foodies that can be served in the city’s public elementary schools. 

Before the new dishes can be added to the menu, though, they have to pass taste tests. The district is hosting five such events for staff and families at elementary schools throughout the city.

On the menu

One of the chefs behind the meal makeovers is Eric Tanaka. As a James Beard award-winning executive chef for Tom Douglas Restaurants, he typically works in high-end kitchens with unusual ingredients, such as lambs tongue and Turkish peppers. So it seems like quite a departure to see him scooping school lunch into compartmentalized trays at Roxhill Elementary … until you find out what’s on the menu:

  • Butternut Squash Curry with Chicken served over Couscous
  • Tuscan Greens & Bean Ragout with Turkey Sausage 
  • Oven Baked Pollack Provencal (White fish with tomato, onion, olives and capers)
  • Monterey Jack Cheese Enchiladas with Homemade Green Chili Sauce
  • Pan Fried Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables with a Cherry Blossom Sauce
  • Fresh Cut Greens, Tabbouli Salad and Homemade Focaccia Bread
  • Yogurt, Fruit and granola parfait

Tanaka says some of the entrees are similar to dishes you might find at one of the restaurants he works at, but it took a lot of hard work and creativity to achieve that:

"I think the big difference is what they’re spending, which is $1.10 per meal,” he says. “The quality can be the same, but it might not be as exotic or expensive of an ingredient.”

Scaling recipes up to the necessary quantity has been a much bigger challenge. Only Two of the 20 recipes he and his colleagues submitted worked out.

“That recipe, sometimes, when you’re doing a batch for 4 people, versus 400 versus 4,000 doesn’t taste the same or cook out the same way,” he says.

Back for seconds?

That’s where Randall Guzzardo comes in. He manages the mass-production of the district’s meals at the central kitchen, but also understands upscale cuisine as a former chef at Chez Panisse. 

He says making school meals tastier and healthier isn’t just good for kids, it’s necessary for the lunch program: 

“Like any restaurant out there, your bottom line is how many customers do you have. And by doing this, we should receive more kids coming back to eat,” he says. 

In other words, he’s hoping the new menu will attract parents and kids who’ve stayed away from school lunches so far. One strategy will include shortening entree names to make them more “kid friendly.”   

Taste test

Of course, success of the effort ultimately hinges on whether youngsters will put the new foods in their mouths. It takes some serious encouragement from Teacher Adi Harrington before one student will even touch her tongue to some couscous.

Chandler Butcher, 7, says the best dish was the yogurt parfait.

“I tried the meat,” he says. “I didn’t like that.”

Wendy Weyer, interim director of nutrition services for Seattle Public Schools, acknowledges it’s a gamble to serve curry instead of pizza when the federal government only reimburses the district for meals kids actually eat.

“We want them to expand their palates,” she says. “So we’re trying to get kids to participate but also step out of the box when it comes to trying new things.”

Feedback from families and students will help determine which recipes make the cut.  The hottest dishes are expected to hit lunch menus within a couple of months. 

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