A student’s day begins at 8:00 a.m., but for the nine members of the Upper School (US) kitchen staff, their work begins two-and-a-half hours earlier.
Director of Dining Services Keith Jones starts by checking the temperatures of the food and coolers. Then he ensures Chefs Alex Medina, Manuel Villar, and Jose Marin have the necessary tools to cook, prepare, and pack lunches for over 900 BB&N community members. Production Manager Chef Ricardo Pontes oversees the preparation and cooking of the meals, and Chef Rigoberto Henriquez and wife Marcela—both of whom have worked at the US for 22 years—stock the breakfast every morning before preparing the salad and deli bar for lunch.
During lunchtime, Chef Jones acts as an extra hand, ushering students out and expediting the lunch line. Meanwhile Chefs Medina and Pontes serve the entrées, and Chef Marin serves the pasta, offering “sauce?” to hungry people. Behind the scenes, Catering Coordinator Deborah Laing orchestrates food requests for teachers, parents, and administrators.
As lunch wraps up, Utilities Head Kulvinder Kaur receives student and faculty “thank you”s as well as hundreds of dishes, which she cleans along with the Commons. The staff then works until 1:40 p.m. cleaning, sanitizing, and organizing the kitchen and dining area.
The US kitchen prides itself on being one of the few New England school kitchens in which almost all of the meals are prepared and made by the chefs. The exceptions are chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, hot dogs, salad dressings, and potato chips—all of which the school purchases.
“The entrees—your rices, your pastas, your potatoes, your vegetables—are coming in fresh and getting cut and cooked here,” Chef Jones said. “We try very hard to be a scratch operation because when you’re a scratch operation, you can control what’s in the food.”
Chef Jones added that he sticks to a four-week menu cycle that achieves food diversification but is no easy task to coordinate.
“The menu process is complicated; I try to do a mix of student and adult favorites, but I also have to balance out the options for vegetarians,” he said. “The idea is that each week we have a variety of foods, but we also have a variety of foods between the weeks. I have to look at each week on paper and match soups with entrees that make sense as well.”
Chicken nuggets are a popular entree at the US, and according to Chef Jones, over 400 pounds of nuggets Ethan Voligny ’19 describes as “exceptional and sensational” are needed to be sufficient as a meal.
“[The chicken nuggets] are unfortunately so full of salt, but when they take away the salt, they take away the quality, so I’ve yet to find one that has better nutrition and keeps the flavor,” Chef Jones said.
He added that eliminating chicken nuggets for health reasons is unnecessary as he and the staff only offer the meal in moderation.
“There are people who want to take it off the menu, who want to force students to not have it, but we try to have chicken nuggets occasionally with a mix of other things that are better for you.”
So that he and his staff can experiment with different meals and provide more of a variety of options, Chef Jones said, there should be more space to operate.
“I’d love to blow a wall out over the [cafeteria],” he said. “We are such a large and busy school, and there’s so much more we could do out in the serving area. We could do smoothies. We had an idea about some pre-made grab-and-go items, but we have to follow regulations, and without the proper space and the proper equipment, you can’t just do it willy-nilly.”
Another upcoming project Chef Jones and the kitchen staff are working on is incorporating sushi into the menu.
“We know kids love sushi, so we are trying to come up with a concept of a way to do sushi. We can’t do traditional sushi because of the raw fish, but it’ll be a sushi-salad option,” Chef Jones said. “I already wrote the recipe, and now I have to test it out myself. That’s the one thing we’re hoping we accomplish this year.”
For now, the chefs continue to crack jokes with the students while serving lunch, both of which Chef Alex cited as his favorite part of his job.
“I like all of the kids. You guys make my job enjoyable,” he said.
Ms. Kaur agreed: “The greetings students give as I get the dishes make me very happy.”
For Chef Ricardo, the kitchen staff is a close-knit family that supports one another.
“Everyone watches everyone’s back,” he said. “We care for each other and help each other learn perfect [English]. It’s a matter of being a family and helping each other out when we can.”