At two Vermont schools, top chefs are serving up a different kind of school lunch
A Vermont Fresh Network sign on the door inspires confidence in any eatery. Behind that of clean-cut chef Paul Morris’ office are more good omens: Stickers from Harvest Hill Farm and Blackwell Roots Farm decorate his outgoing mailbox. On a recent Wednesday, Morris was going over a list of produce from Food Works at Two Rivers Center, considering banana fingerling potatoes, purple-top carrots, tempeh and Japanese eggplant. The produce hailed from farms such as Hartshorn’s Santa Davida Farm, Rhapsody Natural Foods and Screamin’ Ridge Farm.
Despite appearances, Morris isn’t planning menus for a high-end locavore restaurant. He’s the chef at Harwood Union High School in Moretown. Food Works, the source of his produce, is a service that helps connect institutions such as schools and senior centers with the best food Vermont has to offer.
It’s enough to make you want to go back to school.
The 750-plus middle and high schoolers of Harwood get to eat meals made with top-flight ingredients and prepared by a team headed by Morris, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef with an impressive history. Before he spotted the Seven Days ad for his current job five years ago, Morris was executive chef at Stowe Mountain Resort, where he coordinated banquet service and meals at about nine different restaurants and base lodges.
And he’s not the only Vermont chef to make the jump from fine dining to the lunch line. At Holland Elementary School, near the Canadian border, kids get their cuisine from Justin Rolfe, who worked for two and a half years as sous-chef on Musha Cay, magician David Copperfield’s private island. The University of Vermont’s Dining Services employs former New England Culinary Institute chef-instructors, Boston pastry chefs and corporate chefs.
What draws these highly skilled professionals to a job that many of us associate with Chris Farley in a hair net? A more relaxed lifestyle and benefits are strong attractions. And some measure of Jamie Oliver complex — wanting to improve the way our youngsters eat — can’t hurt. Luckily, chefs like Morris and Rolfe work in Vermont, where the community is more than willing to help make sure kids eat right.
When Morris saw the Harwood Union ad, he was looking for a break from an on-call resort lifestyle that meant laboring on weekends and holidays. He jumped at the opportunity to work more stable hours and spend more time with his own children, then in first and third grades.
Rolfe used to have an even more punishing schedule. He commuted to his job cooking at Musha Cay and on private yachts from his hometown of Holland, a community of 588 as of the 2000 U.S. Census. When he wasn’t flying from Boston to the Caribbean, Rolfe was at home hanging out with his daughter, now 9.
Last spring, when Holland Elementary’s single cook, Terry Lumbra, was injured in a car accident, Rolfe stepped into the breach. Lumbra is currently back in the kitchen, but Rolfe volunteers at the school and plans to return full-time next year when she retires.
The Holland native got his glamorous island job through chef Alisa Levy, under whom he worked as sous-chef at her Abbie Lane Restaurant in Derby. When Levy closed the eatery, she went into business providing food to private islands and yachts, bringing her trusty sous-chef with her.
Rolfe can’t reveal too much about what he did on Musha Cay: He never cooked for Copperfield himself, he says, and had to sign confidentiality agreements when feeding other celebrities. What he can divulge is that staying on the island cost guests a collective $150,000 per day. “Food was crazy,” remembers the chef. “Everything we got was best of the best, top of the line, flown in daily if we wanted to.”
Holland Elementary works on a tighter budget. That was fine with Rolfe, for whom the move meant more quality time with his child, benefits and hours that allowed him to grow his catering business. For the town of Holland, it meant a foodie revolution.
Rolfe admits he is forced to “cook down” to his charges, but says he still works to expand their culinary horizons. In the cafeteria, he notes, “You can’t get too, too crazy. Basically, I took their meals that they’ve been eating and made them so much more complex and healthy. Instead of using canned everything, I’d make my own sauces and my own pizza ... I’d make all the desserts.”
One popular addition Rolfe made to the menu was churros. He served the sweet Mexican donuts at breakfast time, with apple and raspberry fillings — but took care, he notes, not to foster a preclass sugar rush with churros con chocolate.
Rolfe also makes frequent classroom visits, where he continues to introduce kiddies to the finer things — including sushi. The chef is proud that he won over the rural young ones with pickled ginger and wasabi — and, along with them, initiated some grownups. “I had some of the parents say, ‘My kid had sushi in class, and I never had it my whole life,’” he says. “I’d tell them, ‘I’ll let them introduce you to it.’”
As Rolfe gained students’ trust, he was able to push their palates a bit further. With one class, he created healthy black-bean brownies, which he describes as “super-moist and so good. The kids loved them.” Rolfe says it’s his “friend-to-friend” interaction with the kids that puts them in the mood to try a legume for dessert.
For his part, Morris says of his team, “We’re not so good at pandering.” But building a dialogue around his food has helped coax some picky student eaters. “I get them to the point where they trust us,” Morris explains. “When we serve a wild-rice-spinach cake as a side dish, we might cut that up into smaller pieces where they can try.”
Morris and his team of seven cooks try to use the cafeteria as an educational hub. Posters on the walls, shot and designed by a photography class, depict farms and producers that supply the school. Morris trains student teams to compete in the Jr. Iron Chef Vermont culinary competition. The cafeteria even hosted a smoothie-making bike from Vermont Soy last year.
While Morris doesn’t always label locally sourced foods in the cafeteria, he serves plenty of them. Harwood is one of nine schools in the state that belong to the Vermont Fresh Network. Morris keeps his everyday fare close to home with help from the Mad River Valley Localvore Project, Food Works at Two Rivers Center, a partnership with Cabot Creamery and the relationships with farmers that he built while cooking in Stowe.
For budding gourmets, a separate café across the hall from Harwood’s cafeteria sells American Flatbread slices and turkey-and-homemade-pesto sandwiches on Red Hen Bakery’s all-local Cyrus Pringle bread. Official “locavore lunches” in the cafeteria take things a step further with items such as crêpes filled with chicken in cream sauce and maple crème brûlée.
Some ingredients are as local as staffers’ backyards. When Seven Days visited the kitchen, one cook was bringing bushels of her homegrown blackberries to the giant freezer for use in blackberry cobbler once school starts.
A $500 grant from the Central Vermont Food Systems Council in 2010 enabled Harwood students to grow their own food on school grounds. Students at Holland Elementary also cultivate some of the ingredients for their lunches, including corn, beans, peas and herbs.
With this local bounty, Morris has managed to reduce Harwood’s use of government supplies to just a few items, including oil and American cheese. Last school year, Harwood Union Food Service accomplished a rare feat for a school dining program: It turned a profit. The money will go to new kitchen supplies; much of the current equipment, says Morris, is nearly 40 years old.
While Morris works within the limitations of school equipment and seasonal ingredients, he says it’s important to him to keep his menus interesting. “We basically have the same clientele 180 days a year. We try to keep it fresh, and it’s challenging for us, too,” he says.
Morris says his menus don’t look that different from those of other schools. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that most schools don’t serve turkey quesadillas with fresh tomato-cilantro salsa, or herb-marinated chicken Caesar wraps with homemade Red Hen croutons and Caesar dressing.
The chef admits his cuisine takes effort, partly because of time constraints. “It’s not really nine to five here,” Morris says. “We go through a lot of food. It’s pretty crazy. Even though we’re doing stuff from scratch and sourcing local stuff, you can’t be late when it comes to lunch. At 11:15, you gotta be ready to roll.” Compared with his resort job, he says, “It’s definitely a different stress, but it’s still stressful.”
Rolfe, by contrast, describes his time at Holland Elementary as stress free. “You go in to cook in the morning, and you know what you’re cooking and how many people you’re making it for,” he says. “As far as the schedule, you know you’re getting there between six and seven and leaving by two.”
Rolfe and Morris agree that they don’t miss their seemingly more glamorous past lives. Rolfe gets to stretch his creative legs in the evenings, when he caters private parties several nights a week.
Even in the cafeteria, both chefs take pride in their food and want students to think about what they’re eating, not just grab something on the way to class. “My main mission on the food here is more about the students and the staff,” says Morris. “It’s a total group effort.”
No matter whom he’s cooking for, Rolfe says it’s all about heart. “You’ve gotta love your food, and it’s gonna love you back,” he says. “When you care about what you’re cooking, it’s gonna make it good.”
Now, that’s a solid lesson plan.