Cliff Lyons and Kristen Parker had to make some major adjustments when they came to work as bakers at the Cherry Creek School district's Student Nutrition Center.
It's not that the pair lacked training. Parker, a graduate of Eaglecrest High School whose parents work in the district, studied culinary arts at Colorado Mesa University. Lyons, a Detroit native whose wife works for the district, earned his cooking chops as a student Johnson and Wales University. Both had restaurant experience before coming to the district.
But cooking at a high-profile restaurant on even the busiest of nights is a lot different than preparing meals for a district of more than 54,000 students.
"It's not of this scale," Lyons said, taking a break between prepping, baking and cleaning at the Student Nutrition Center in Centennial. Weeks before the beginning of the traditional school year, the crew at the center was still hard at work prepping food for students at the district's year-round schools and other facilities. "There, they teach you artesian-style baking in small batches."
At Cherry Creek, the food crew is responsible for cranking out up to 39,000 meals on a typical weekday. On the baking side of the massive operation, that means hundreds of pounds of flour and massive amounts of dough. For example, a typical school year will see the SNC preparing more than 259,000 cinnamon rolls, one of the most popular staple in cafeterias across the district.
"It's a completely different experience," Parker said. "You have to take the science of baking and apply it for every student in the district."
The bakers aren't the only ones working at the nerve center of the district's food operations who have had to adjust to the bigger scale of the district. Brandon Durio, the district's executive chef, had a resume seeped in more traditional food service when he came to the job more than a year ago. He was a restaurant manager, a chef for an assisted living facility and a successful student in Colorado chef programs. Coming to Cherry Creek meant readjusting his approach to creating flavors and coming up with meals.
Part of that shift was because of the sheer size of the district, but the change also had a lot to do with how students eat. Durio faced the challenge of conforming to federal nutrition standards while offering appetizing options that students would actually eat.
"We're never forcing food on kids. We're giving them presentable options with the different food groups already there," Durio said. "We always say we offer rather than serve. The kids are going to take what they want, but if all the foods are already in there, it's not something they necessarily think about."
That's meant creating balanced meal options like a three-bean chili that includes protein, vegetables and a side of cornbread for grain. This year, that approach will translate into a new hummus plate, one that includes veggies, pita bread and a flexible approach to presentation. Students can make a pita wrap, take their veggies in a dip or incorporate the hummus in other ways.
"We want to have variety. We've put a lot of thought into our menu this year, so it's not the same kind of food every day," Durio said. "We want to have options for everyone."
Durio and his staff have traveled to schools across the district to make sure those options are available and appealing. They regularly conduct taste tests to see what kind of well-balanced meals actually appeal to the district's diners.
Durio's approach has also garnered attention from food staff from other districts across the state. At a recent conferment of the Colorado Student Nutrition Association, Durio's Italian sausage and spinach roll-up won a top prize in a friendly competition among fellow chefs. The meal's combination of veggies, protein, grain and other elements garnered interest from some of the state's smaller districts that don't have to worry about feeding more than 50,000 kids on a daily basis.
That's not to say the hearty meal doesn't have a future at Cherry Creek. Durio is always looking to incorporate new ideas into cafeterias' menus. But he's insistent that students, staff and parents get a chance to offer their input before any item shows up as a featured dish.
"Writing a recipe here is completely different than writing a recipe at home or at a restaurant," Durio said, pointing to the specific federal nutrition guidelines and the finicky nature of students' palates. "We want to make sure the flavor is there and the kids are going to eat it. We also need to make sure it's a good fit for them nutritionally."
August 4, 2014