Kimberly Pike has a go-to contact for questions about recipes.
As the kitchen manager at Cimarron Elementary School, Pike's questions are often complex. She oversees feeding hundreds of students every day, and she deals with portion sizes that would make any casual cook turn pale.
But chef Brandon Durio has no qualms when it comes to figuring out the perfect spice proportions for a recipe designed to feed a crowd of hundreds of hungry kids. As the executive chef for the whole Cherry Creek School District, that kind of scale comes naturally. And that's why Pike can always count on him for answers.
"If I have any questions on a recipe, if there's too much of something or if something isn't looking right, I will always contact Brandon. He will always be there to answer the questions," Pike said. "If he can't fix it, he'll look in to how to fix it. It's definitely a great resource to have."
That kind of direct feedback between Durio and the district's staff of kitchen personnel doesn't only come via the telephone. To celebrate Colorado Proud School Lunch Day on Sept. 30, Durio sported his white frock and chef's hat to make an in-person visit to the Cimarron cafeteria. Along with Pike and her staff, Durio was on hand to dish out hot meals to more than 500 students. It's an event that presaged National School Lunch week from Oct. 12 to Oct. 16.
Durio, a professional chef whose resume includes stints as a restaurant manager and the culinary chief for an assisted living facility, was on hand to help hand out hundreds of portions of a new peach cobbler recipe. The dish is just one of hundreds that Durio and his staff have created for the 2015-16 school year, and unlike the recipes he created during his time in the restaurant world, these meals have to meet very specific nutritional guidelines.
But just as the food has to meet specific standards in terms of ingredients, it also has to please some notoriously picky eaters. Durio's visit to Cimarron offered a chance to see the success or failure of food in a firsthand environment.
"We wanted to give the kids the chance to taste something that they may have not had a chance to taste yet this year," Durio said. "I oversee our central bakery for the district, and when I test recipes I want to make sure that they do include all of the nutrition … That's what we do; we're constantly testing recipes to make sure that they are healthy for kids."
That process also provides for some of the best moments of Durio's job outside of the central Food and Nutrition Services building.
"This is the best part of the job. All summer long, I'm testing and making sure everything fits in to our menu," Durio said. "Once the school year starts and the kids are excited to come back, it's the best part."
With a constantly shifting menu that typically sees three to five new menu items introduced in a given school year, Durio and the rest of the district's Food and Nutrition staff have come up with a way to keep students and parents current on the latest trends. The district's Food and Nutrition Services website, http://ccsdcafe.org, includes detailed information about ingredients, nutrition and menus for every building.
"Every month, we project a month ahead," Durio said. "It's linked to an app and the website. You can see everything that is going to be menued for a day. Even our school nurses know about the menus for any students with allergy or health issues."
Such a detailed approach makes the day-to-day life of kitchen managers like Pike a lot less stressful. Even so, Pike is quick to explain that the job carries very little in the way of anxiety.
"Every part of this job is the best part of the job," she said. "I love working with the kids all the day and preparing all of these wonderful meals. All of these choices that they have are so amazing."
Variety was definitely clear as Cimarron students made their way through the lunch line and opted for different entrees, sides and deserts. Some even politely refused Durio's freshly prepared peach cobbler in favor of fresh fruit or yogurt.
"If they don't like one thing, there are plenty of other choices for them," Pike said.