By Analiese Paik
John Turenne, chef/owner of Sustainable Food Systems, entered the café where we agreed to meet for his interview dressed in a white chef jacket and black chef pants, fresh from a day at Burr Elementary School in Fairfield. He has become a bit of a celebrity in town since arriving a few weeks ago to work with Fairfield Public Schools’ food service staff on a limited school lunch makeover. During the interview, at least three people recognized him from work in our eleven elementary schools plus one of our middle schools, and exchanged smiles and warm greetings.
Turenne’s presence in our school cafeterias could easily unsettle any worker, but his disarming approach quickly wins over the staff. “I’m a guest in your kitchen” he tells them. “This is your home and I’m here to share what I know and also to learn from you.” Once the cafeteria workers overcome their fear and anxiety over what he’s trying to do, he introduces some new recipes, trains and works with the staff to produce the made-from-scratch foods efficiently and economically, then communicates with kids and parents to adeptly introduce the dishes.
Fortunately for us, chefs are cool, and that makes Chef John, as he’s known to the kids, instantly likable. As an ice breaker, he tells students in each K-5 classroom he visits that he’s worked with celebrities like First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver on his Food Revolution show to create good, healthy and cool school food. Realizing he’s not just another restaurant chef, the star struck kids are ripe and ready to hear about what he’s doing in their school. “And guess what we’re going to do?” he asks. “Good, healthy and cool school food.” The kids are sufficiently worked up at that point to have formed a bond with him, the strength of which becomes evident the next day as they call out excited hellos to him in the hallway.
Turenne spends half his energy communicating with kids in the dining room and classroom. Day two, he dons his chef toque and works the cafeteria to get the kids fired up for the samples they’re about to taste. “Here’s what you tell your parents today: There was a chef in school today and he made us chips. Kale chips. Green chips.” After tasting the new foods, kids vote thumbs up, thumbs down, and sideways thumbs to signal indifference. “At Burr Elementary School, the kitchen staff said ‘They’re never going to like this.’ And most people would say kids won’t eat kale” says Turenne. But the results were impressive: seventy-five percent of students tried the kale chips and two third of those liked them. “I’m pleasantly surprised by my interaction with the kids, but not surprised by the extent to which they’re willing to try new things.” When a student says he doesn’t like the food being introduced, Turenne gives a reassuring “It’s okay and thanks for trying something new.”
“The biggest challenge to changing school food is participation levels” says Turenne. “It’s a business and we must rely on kids and parents wanting to buy lunch. Participation rates can go down when beloved food items are removed from the menu. That’s why communication is key.” Feedback from parents has been universally positive and a number have been present during the tastings to try the foods for themselves. Regrets? “I wish I had more time with the kids” he says, knowing that repeated exposure has the power to transform them into more adventurous eaters. “If we can change kids now, we make the world a better place for the future.”