As executive chef for District 11, Colorado Springs’ largest school district, Brian Axworthy (pictured) is on the leading edge of a growing movement to improve the school dining experience with fresher, healthier ingredients and gourmet preparation. He talked recently about what a school chef does on a daily basis; how he is integrating Ranch Foods Direct beef into school menus; and what some of his biggest challenges are. Here’s a summary, in his words, from that conversation.

I do a little bit of everything, but I spend lots of hours getting feedback from the kids. I visit all of our schools on a regular basis and walk through the lunchroom while they are eating, asking them about what they like. Then I go back and formulate recipes and train the staff on how to make them. Plus, I’m always scouting out the next new thing. We’re always looking for ways to improve on what we do.

Just recently, we started implementing an automated menu system that is designed to reduce food costs by eliminating waste. It’s a pretty unique program. We’d like to sell the idea and see the template made into a software program other districts could use. It coordinates everything we do in the district, including production schedules, vender ordering and warehouse orders, and recipe conversions. Each school every morning types their info into a computer, and our system automates everything else. I’m hired on a 12-month position, and I spent the summer building the system.

We do want to integrate more and more cuts of Ranch Foods Direct beef into our menus. But first we have to get the skill levels up in our kitchens. It’s a daily challenge: I conduct training sessions all of the time. The reason it’s so difficult is just imagine cooking 15,000 portions of something: we do that daily in each of our kitchens. If something has more than a couple of steps to it, it’s hard for our employees. As a result, right now we are mainly working with Ranch Foods Direct hamburger and top round. We are doing stews and pot roasts, meatloaf, tacos, sloppy joes and chili — things like that.

We are considering adding sushi to our high school menu. And an Asian dish, a beef and broccoli. The demographics are different in each school, so we have to test everything and see if it flies. We can cook all the healthy food we want, but it doesn’t do any good if the kids don’t eat it.

More schools are starting to hire chefs, if they can afford it. We all want to use good products, but it is expensive, so we have to watch our budgets there too. The goal is to make food healthier and more appealing. We can take away the salt from a dish, for example, but can we make it taste good? Some steps are easy, like switching to whole grain pasta. Fortunately, there are lots of resources now for schools wanting to move in this direction. (Learn more at www.d11.org/FNS.)

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