A Lesson in Taste

Greg Dawson chows down on school lunch menus of yesteryear and today.

In my wonder years there were eight Wonders of the World—the seven from antiquity, plus this one that kept me up at night: I wonder what’s in Chef’s Surprise?

Every so often, Chef’s Surprise appeared on the school lunch menu printed in the local newspaper—a tantalizing beacon of hope and mystery signaling a reprieve from a revolving-door menu of meatloaf, fish sticks, “Italian” spaghetti, applesauce, Tater Tots, grilled cheese, fruit gelatin, carrot sticks and lima beans plopped on hard plastic trays.

The tingling anticipation of Chef’s Surprise was always better than the surprise. Even the hairnet ladies dishing it out were not excited. Eventually I figured out that Chef’s Surprise really meant “Whatever we have lying around the kitchen that day.”

Chef’s Surprise and everything else on the menu—the good, the bad, the indigestible—had this in common: No one asked if we wanted it or liked it. We were modern-day Oliver Twists, except I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “Please, hairnet lady, I want some more fruit gelatin.”

Fifty years later, everything has changed. I recently studied the January lunch menus for three schools my kids attended in the 1990s—Brookshire Elementary, Glenridge Middle, Winter Park High—and did not find a single listing for Chef’s Surprise.

The menus sounded more like Epcot than a school cafeteria, with entrées such as Curry Mustard Chicken Drumsticks, General Tso’s Chicken, Creole Turkey, Jamaican Beef Patty, and Chicken Florentine Pasta—as well as an array of fresh fruit, raw and steamed veggies, and salads.

 The evolution of school lunches from the take-it-or-leave-it, carb-heavy, ethnically monochrome model of my youth to the current World’s Fare of smart food screened by students has been under way for some time. In Orlando it began a decade ago when Lora Gilbert left Kansas, where the creamy aroma of chicken-and-noodles wafted through the halls of her childhood schools, to become director of food and nutrition services for Orange County Public Schools.

She purged cookies, ice cream, sodas and fries from the menu, added whole grains and salads, and instituted a “strong customer-based strategy” in designing menus—i.e., began asking a shocked Oliver Twist what he liked and wanted.

“All new menu items are tested with students,” Gilbert says. “Everything has to pass, no matter how minor. We could not find a macaroni and cheese with whole grain pasta that the students approved of. We finally found one with pasta that’s not slimy or chewy—it’s on the menu now.”

Gilbert is 59, “which is why it’s so important I not make decisions about the menu.” She and her staff “go to where kids eat, like food courts, and watch what they’re ordering.” But the most prized, menu-shaping input comes directly from students, who during the school year submit dozens of ideas and sometimes even complete recipes like pineapple meatballs, and a chicken tostada with sautéed onions and refried beans.

“They told us this is what they like and what their friends would like,” Gilbert says. “We’re going to do some testing.”

It’s easier for a student to get into a lot of colleges than it is for a student recipe to get onto Gilbert’s menu. The “admission” process requires student taste tests in four schools at each level—elementary, middle, high school—with a minimum 70 percent thumbs-up from each group.

Gilbert delights in adventurous student creations that think far outside the lunchbox. One dish that breezed through, to her surprise, was Chicken Fried Rice and Miyabi Japanese Onion Soup, accompanied by Peanut Butter Banana.

“I never would have guessed they would like the ginger flavor in soup—never in my wildest dreams,” she says.

 Created by three Wekiva High School students, the meal took first place in the OCPS “Cooking Up Change” competition in December. The winning team—Lauren Earnest, Andy Obregon, Anthony Truong—will travel to Washington, D.C., in June to compete against student chefs from across America.

But the highest honor for Chicken Fried Rice and Miyabi Japanese Onion Soup with Peanut Butter Banana comes in August when a new school year begins and it becomes the first student-created—not just approved—meal added to OCPS menus, a milestone for Gilbert’s lunchroom revolution.

The skunk-at-the-picnic cynic in me wonders if Lauren and her team delivered a recipe they figured would appeal to adults judging the contest. Would her friends really eat this stuff when no one was looking?

“I honestly believe anyone in the cafeteria would immediately want to eat this,” Lauren says.

This could be the Chef’s Surprise I’ve waited for all my life. Somewhere, the hairnet ladies are smiling. 

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