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Will school lunchrooms be the next rock star venue for chefs?

Once upon a time, restaurant chefs were cooks, some with formal training, some without, who worked long hours standing on their feet, unseen and unsung in their kitchens, sweating over hot stoves. Today, they are TV stars with their own shows, series, cookbooks and memoirs. They have restaurants with vegetable and herb gardens, in-house butchers, personal purveyors and special go-to farmers and foragers. They have Facebook and Twitter followers by the droves. Their faces can be seen on the covers of national and international magazines, and their names are big draws for commercials, politicians, charity events and movie cameos. Their home kitchens and gardens are the subject of magazine coverage – with recipes, of course. A new book, “Eat Ink,” features not only the recipes and stories of 60 top chefs, but their tattoos.

Now that it is firmly established in our culture that cooking and being a chef are definitely hyper-cool, is there a chance that the long-unsung and often reviled school food service directors and their chefs have a chance at the kind of stardom that restaurant chefs have achieved? After all, they run the biggest restaurants in every city, sometimes serving the only meals in the day that some children receive.

Will the new, young, school food service directors become the rock stars of the 2020s, changing and leading the way we think about food? Why not? We’ve met some recently who have that effervescent star quality, that glitter in their eyes, that leads one to suspect they can accomplish just about anything they want to, and the main thing they want is to change the food that schoolchildren are offered and the way they are educated about it. How are the directors doing this? By increasing the freshness and flavors of the food they source and prepare.

Like star chefs, star school food service directors know the names of their local farmers and what’s in season when. Some food service directors, like chefs, have gardens attached to their central kitchens or in their district schools, like Patty Page, director of nutrition services at Manteca Unified School District. Some are also redesigning their kitchens to reflect the local heritage and to improve the dining experience, like Jennifer Gerard, director of nutrition services at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. Kitchens are being opened up and the dining areas brightened so students can see the school lunch staff at work. Many of these food service directors are changing the staid, boring school lunch menus to read – and taste – appetizing and exciting.

Scott Soiseth, director of child nutrition at Turlock Unified School District, has five commercial rotisseries in his school kitchens, turning out up to 100 Mary’s Organic chickens a day. Students are offered a quarter chicken with sweet potato or organic French fries, burritos filled with rotisserie chicken, salads, wraps or barbecued grass-fed beef burgers. “I am grilling with raw grass-fed beef and using all natural meat products. No more processed meat products in my district,” Soiseth says. This is practically heresy in the school food world where processed products of every kind are the norm. But his customers are increasing and his revenues are going up.

Diane Deshler, director of food services and custodial services at Acalanes Union High School District in the Bay Area, is a graduate of Le Cordon Rouge Culinary School and École Lenôtre, a pastry school in Paris, and a veteran of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. Before taking over as food service director for the district, Deshler was the executive chef at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Those are pretty snappy credentials and a background worthy of its own TV show.

Dreshler doesn’t have any gardens to gather from or rotisseries for chickens, but she does have a secret weapon: Bay Cities Produce. She says, “Working with Bay Cities Produce has allowed our district to significantly increase the variety and quantity of fresh, local fruits and vegetables that are served daily in the kitchens. This week the fruit choices include red pears, local apples, red grapes, clementines and sliced, fresh persimmon. Also on the menu right now is a local, roasted winter squash mix that includes kabocha squash, red peppers, red onions and carrots. Bay Cities cuts up the squash mix ahead, which allows me to add more vegetables regularly because the labor cost for the kitchen remains the same.”

In Yolo County in the heart of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork region, we have one of these new, young breed of food service directors. At 23, Stacie Velasquez is arguably the youngest school food service director in California.

Short, with her dark hair pulled back in a slick, stylish twist, Velasquez exudes enthusiasm and confidence. Standing in the large, newly built central kitchen in Esparto, a small rural community at the mouth of the Capay Valley, Velasquez talks about serving persimmons and kiwi fruits now, in fall, but she is really looking forward to citrus season coming up because the Capay Valley farmers just up the road, many of them organic, have a large list of citrus availability over winter. “Right now, I’m buying from Produce Express, a distributor out of Sacramento, but since they buy directly from a lot of the Capay farmers, I know what I’m getting from where.”

When we met Velasquez in October, she’d been at the job less than five weeks. Hired just days after her 23rd birthday, she took over from a 30-year veteran of Esparto Unified School District’s food service, a position that had been vacant for four months. Velasquez, who grew up on a ranch in nearby Arbuckle and still lives there with her husband and 1-year-old daughter, started working in food service when she was 15½. Her first job was at the venerable Bill & Kathy’s Restaurant in Dunnigan, a Valley icon along Interstate 5, now sadly closed. “I worked there, and then when Denny’s opened in town, I got a job there.” Working first as a hostess, then as a server, Velasquez, at that point only 16, heard about an opening for an assistant manager at Denny’s, and thought to herself, why not? I can do that.

And she did, continuing as assistant manager until taking a job as kitchen manager in Winters Unified School District, under Director of Nutrition Services Cathleen Olson, herself a former chef, caterer and restaurateur in Davis. “I learned a lot there,” Velasquez says, “working in a school lunch program that was gradually shifting to increasing fresh and local foods, buying first from a local distributor and then direct from local farms,” which is her goal at Esparto. “In Winters, I worked hands on, chopping, washing, everything, plus training staff. I found out that when you chop an onion correctly, you can save three to five minutes, for example, and every minute adds up. That helps to give you that extra time you need to prep fresh foods and to cook from scratch. I know first-hand there is time to increase the amount of scratch cooking we do at Esparto.”

Velasquez looked long and hard at the job opening for director of food services at Esparto Unified before applying. “The position was still open after four months. A friend at work said, ‘Go for it. You’re competitive and want to move up. It’s an opportunity. Do it.’ I talked it over with my husband, and on the last day of the posting, I applied.” And she got the job.

Like many school districts throughout the state, Esparto has a wellness policy directly supportive of both local purchasing and increasing fresh fruits and vegetables, so Velasquez’s goals and background are a perfect fit for the district’s vision. While she may seem to be surprised that she is the head of the school food service program at 23, responsible for seven employees, 560 to 580 meals a day, and volumes of federal and state reporting and accounting, she’s not in the least surprised she can do it. “I love numbers. I’ve already processed 75 new applications for free or reduced school meals,” she says. “I want to get as many children and adults as I can eating school lunch. I am pretty competitive – I think I get it from my mom.” Esparto Unified enrollment is 1,000 students, with 64 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program.

We asked her about the school lunch menu. “It was written and submitted before I was hired. But next year, I’ll get to write my own.” You could tell she could hardly wait to begin the formal revamping, shaping it to her vision of more local food, more fresh food and more scratch cooking. “Right now, we can be creative with the daily specials, and those are going really well. Dishes like mandarin chicken, and on Fridays, we do a potato bar. We are getting a lot of the teachers and administrators as well as school office staff eating here too, which is good role-modeling for the students and great for my bottom line. And all the schools have salad bars. And we do ‘Harvest of the Month,’ featuring a different fruit and vegetable each month.”

Velasquez has the ordering, menu writing and food selections down, as well as the systematic preventative approach to food safety known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. The fiscal side of the National School Lunch Program, however, is relatively new to her and can be daunting even to seasoned directors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs the National School Lunch Program and operates it in California through the state Department of Education. Both the nutritional and fiscal regulations are tight, heavily reviewed, change frequently and carry significant consequences if not followed.

“I’m really good with money, and I’m really good with numbers, so I can catch little things that a lot of people can’t – so training on that will just make me that much better,” Velasquez says. She has researched the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System for classes she can take – and has enrolled in a webinar. Her goal? Increase the money available in her budget for produce, as well as high-quality meats that may be a little more expensive but that the kids should like more.

Velasquez cooks every day for her family at home. “My husband doesn’t do leftovers,” she says, laughing. “I cook a lot of Mexican foods, but healthy. Rice, beans, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables. My daughter loves my rice – I make it with onions – soon I’ll be doing it that way at school, too.” When asked if she missed working in a restaurant, she says, “Well, I do miss that adrenaline rush a little bit, but this is so much better. I get to be at home with my daughter in the afternoons, I don’t have to work weekends or holidays. It’s much better.” Like many other food service directors and workers we’ve met, the job is a career choice that meshes with the job of being a parent and the love of working with food and children.

With a generation of school food service directors retiring over the next decade, there is opportunity in a career that has long been relegated to a less-than-star status. “There has been and will continue to be a relatively high rate of retirement amongst food service directors,” says Lynette Rock, president of the California School Nutrition Association. “This is a perfect field for young people to enter into. The jobs are relatively stable and the directors can have a big influence on the health of our children.”

As we travel throughout California, visiting school kitchens and eating school lunches, and meeting innovative school food service directors such as Velasquez, Deshler, Gerard, Soiseth and so many more, we are convinced that these and others yet to come have the will, the ingenuity and the patience to change school lunches in California and bring to children the kind of food that reflects the freshness and bounty of the state’s agriculture and the rich diversity of its population, just as restaurant chefs have done. The next decade’s star chefs may well be those running and cooking in the largest restaurants in town – schools – to the benefit of all California’s children.