Thank goodness the only thing constant is change. And that history repeats itself. After being awarded a Kitchen Infrastructure Equipment and Training Grant for the 2022 - 2023 school year, Alva Spence, Palo Alto’s Unified Nutrition Services Director (PAUSD), has finally gotten a chance to wish and reimagine the return of scratch-cooking into her district.
“There is much more interest from students and parents in fresh, flavor-filled scratch entrees and plant-forward options these days.” said Spence. “Ethnic flavors and bowls are very popular too.”
Spence decided to use the district’s staff development days on this new vision, and I jumped at the offer to serve alongside as Chef Instructor for the program. For our first training day this past August, we transformed Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School (JLS) kitchen into Iron Chef-Palo Alto - a program testing new recipes (many plant-forward) with the goal of implementing at least 10 new dishes into elementary, middle and high school menus. Another goal of the program is to showcase unique skills and creativity of the staff. Palo Alto’s diverse employee pool offers culinary expertise from a variety of cultures - a perfect match for expanding culinary trends and student preferences.
Now let’s acknowledge giving the lunch program an updo is no small effort. School kitchens are a shell of their former selves. Most lack stoves, burners and other tools, especially the knives, are old and dull. Part of the grant purchased new equipment including 10 induction burners – fulfilling another all-the-rage trend in culinary. Compared to gas and electric, induction cooking is faster, safer for humans and better for the environment (no flame or polluting off-gases are created in the process). Change not only offers a chance at more plant-forward foods, it helps the schools green-up with carbon-reducing technology to fit popular demands.
Iron Chef-Palo Alto broke staff up into 10 teams of 3. Cooks had 2.5 hours to prepare 30 new scratch dishes (plant-based, vegetarian, and meat).
Each group presented their dishes, then everyone tasted, ranked and critiqued the entrees.
Inspired by possibilities, we all left excited about what comes next.
Here’s the Top Ten winners from our first training day (in no particular order): Chicken Pesto Sandwich, Beef & Broccoli Stir Fry, Street Tacos
Black Bean and Corn Salad
Quinoa Mango Salad
Chicken Salad Wrap with Fruit
Tofu Lo Mein
Potato Ragda Bowl
Lentil Crumble Nachos
and Black Bean Empanadas
Tasting Day is planned for the next staff development day in October, an opportunity to showcase the Top Ten entrees and salads chosen in August.
“We want to give students, staff, and parents an opportunity to sample these items,” says Spence. “We would love to incorporate some of the recipes into this school year, but it’s important to hear student reaction and feedback first.”
Stay tuned for more developments around this inspirational effort.