The meals in Chef Ryan Laudenschlager’s cafeteria at The Lexington School are made from scratch and contain no processed foods. The students 'think it's all pretty cool,' he says. (Photo provided by The Lexington School)
By Beth Dotson Brown
Peeling 200 pounds of potatoes requires many hands and a considerable amount of time, but that’s one of the tasks on mashed potato day in Chef Ryan Laudenschlager’s kitchen at The Lexington School.
Laudenschlager, a Sullivan University graduate, is operating an innovate food service that educates students while providing good nutrition and sparking their interest in food.
The Lexington School serves students from preschool through middle school. Laudenschlager began at the school in June. Because restaurant work was not family-friendly, he opted to take his culinary skills to a school cafeteria.
Schools are increasingly changing the foods they offer and the methods of transportation. First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let’s Move in February, 2010 to bring attention to the problem of childhood obesity in the United States. Childhood obesity rates have tripled during the past three decades.
According to Let’s Move, many children consume at least half of their daily calories in school. That makes the National School Lunch Program especially important. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new rules for school meant to increase the nutritional quality of school meals.
While Laudenschlager aims to serve foods that kids like, he also incorporates new foods - and new ways of getting the kids to try them - into his menus. (Photo provided by The Lexington School)
Laudenschlager aims for nutrition and foods that children like. He describes his school food philosophy as, “Preparing it from scratch. Everything from entrée to salad is made in-house. The second facet is providing a high variety of foods.”
Every day, the cafeteria receives fresh produce to incorporate into the meals, which contain no processed foods. While this is a more time-intensive way to cook, Laudenschlager says the cost of the food is cheaper.
To prepare it in a way that interests students requires work and creativity. That means his staff puts in significant time. “They’re working harder than they’ve ever worked and they’re doing it with a smile,” he says.
The students are also receiving the food with delight and curiosity. “I love food enough to learn a lot of quirky things about it, and this environment is open to that. It encourages kids to try new things or old things they thought they didn’t like.”
For example, students walk into the cafeteria to see the daily menu projected onto the wall along with food quotes or facts. When the salad bar included banana peppers, Laudenschlager used them as an opportunity to teach students about the Scoville system that rates the hotness of a pepper. Other topics he’s addressed include types of garlic and where tomatoes originated (South America).
And he also decorates the cafeteria with portraits of his culinary heroes, such as Chef John Foster, who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus and a KyForward columnist, and Alton Brown of The Food Network.
At times, the food itself might seem similar to what students eat elsewhere. For example, on a recent day the staff served pizza. The difference was that they made the dough and sauce from scratch.
The cafeteria also has a daily salad and sandwich bar. The salad bar always offers a whole-grain salad, such as a spelt – an ancient grain widely recognized for its health benefits – and butternut squash salad that is a favorite.
“The whole grains are packed with protein and complex carbohydrate that offer the energy children need,” Laudenschlager says.
In addition, Laudenschlager has incorporated a monthly demonstration table where students can pick up, for example, a spoonful of a whole grain, like amaranth or wheat berry, and become familiar with it. One demonstration included types of salsa and another provided squash examples.
“Some of the older kids especially think I’m kind of nutty,” Laudenschlager says.
But for children, nutty can entice them to try new foods or foods that they’ve tried before and didn’t like. “They think it’s all pretty cool,” he says. “The response has been very good. I’ve never worked in a job where I had this much positive affirmation.”
Laudenschlager shares his culinary knowledge and love of food with teachers and parents through a school blog. He’s also happy to share his experience as a school chef with other chefs who might be considering such an opportunity. “I think this is a market that is growing,” he says.
As the market grows, so does the culinary education in Laudenschlager’s cafeteria where children are eating foods they’ve never even heard of before.