A school chef’s work is never done, for when classrooms temporarily shutter for the summer, these creative, dedicated masters of the kitchen come together from all over the state to sharpen their skills, share a banquet of delectable recipes and ideas, learn what’s cooking in their profession, and plan a fresh culinary journey for the students they help nourish.
This summer, consultants from the Iowa Department of Education Bureau of Nutrition and Health Services are conducting regional training for school nutrition staff across the state. Led by consultant and certified chef Brenda Windmuller, participants have access to on-site professional training along with numerous training videos ranging in topics from standardized recipes to knife skills to measuring to yield tests.
“It is a joy to watch these school nutrition professionals come together to hone their culinary skills while learning some new recipes which feature Iowa-grown foods,” Windmuller said. “I am excited to see more scratch-made menu options included on lunch and breakfast menus across the state.”
Recently in Des Moines, training began with review and attention to matters of compliance and safety such as nutrition requirements for school meals, purchasing regulations and kitchen utensil and equipment tutorials.
Critical kitchen etiquette and safety were also covered, including food safety tips for handling raw chicken, reminders to alert coworkers when carrying something hot, and when walking with a knife in hand, remembering to place it at one’s side in a nondominant hand, thus avoiding tragedy should one fall and instinctively use a dominant hand to break the fall.
And those morsels of information were just the hors d’oeuvres in this full day of training. In tandem with kitchen protocol – no watches or jewelry and outfitted in closed-toe, slip-resistant shoes, long pants, aprons and hairnets – the chefs embarked on a complete kitchen tour and were each assigned an individual workstation.
The training session heated up as chefs rolled up their sleeves and got to work. After all, the clock was ticking and they needed to meet a lunchtime deadline.
View photos of the chefs in action
Chefs were responsible for preparing one of a dozen winning recipes from the Choose Iowa Culinary Competition hosted by the Iowa Department of Education for high school students enrolled in a culinary arts class or foods-based course through a school’s family and consumer sciences program. Winning recipes were already tested and standardized to be used by school nutrition programs across the state and country.
The kitchen environment was tangibly transformed by a mix of teamwork and individual drive. Chefs moved efficiently from methodically preparing their work station, gathering ingredients, and planning their work flow (known in culinary circles as Mise en Place, a French phrase meaning everything in its place) to scurrying to shelves, carts, pantries, walk-in coolers, stoves, ovens, sinks, dishwashers and back to their work stations, constantly monitoring the progress of their culinary creations.
Intensity and concentration reached peak levels as chefs traversed the kitchen with notable speed in what resembled a choreographed merge of entrances and exits on a major metropolitan freeway. And no one broke the rules of the road, for these chefs understand that rules matter when successfully preparing food for children and keeping everyone safe in the kitchen. It is a collective goal to not be the group that breaks out the first-aid kit.
The rules, however, did not stop the free flow of ideas, innovations, pivots and improvisations when needed. The chefs focused intensely on the tasks at hand while simultaneously remaining aware of everything taking place in their midst. They sought help, asked advice, questioned and supported one another in their work.
Boiling it all down, school chefs love what they do. Their passion was clear during the debrief and critique session that took place during a noon meal featuring the 12 winning entrees they had just prepared.
They gathered together visibly excited to share and they spoke with affection and reverence about fresh ingredients, nutritional content, yields, equivalents, techniques and ways to make food more appetizing and enjoyable to the well-being of the youth they serve.
They were nourished not only by the fruits of their labors, but also by one another’s culinary discoveries and journeys. They did not mince words and were honest in their assessment of what worked well and what did not for executing each recipe. They shared what they have learned from their young diners in their home districts. They know they can have a lifelong impact on the wellness of Iowa students.
Finally, when counters were sanitized, utensils cleaned, food stored, garbage recycled, and contact information exchanged, the chefs left full, their cravings for learning, exploration and growth completely satisfied. They return to their school kitchens inspired and prepared to invigorate the palate and health of the Iowa school children they feed, on time, without fail, every single day. Now that is food for thought.