Chef Justin Ward, CIA assistant professor, demonstrates table setup design.
Chef Justin Ward, CIA assistant professor, demonstrates table setup design. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In a city with James Beard Award-nominated restaurants Mixtli and Cured, Culinary Institute of America Chef Justin Ward wants San Antonio school cafeterias to step up their culinary game.

Reflecting on the cafeteria food of his past and the lunch lines of San Antonio Independent School District’s present – a typical week’s menu includes mini corndogs, cheeseburgers, burritos, turkey and cheese sandwiches, and fish nuggets with various sides – Ward thinks schools can do better and should reinvent their menus.

“If they are serving fish in a square frozen patty that just goes in the oven, it will be the least popular item on their menu,” he said. “Why not do a fish po’ boy that has lettuce and tomato or fish and chips…You can take that same fish and instead of making it a plastic boat that no one ever eats, make it something worthwhile.”

To that end, 18 child nutrition managers from SAISD gathered Monday morning at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus at the Pearl for cooking lessons. Wearing red polos, black aprons, and hairnets, the group pored over recipes given to them by Ward at the beginning of a weeklong training that is part of a new partnership between the CIA and SAISD.

The collaboration aims to inspire the school employees who oversee kitchens at SAISD campuses to enhance their cafeteria menus and embrace new cooking skills and techniques. Before school starts in August, each of SAISD’s 87 cafeteria managers will go through a weeklong seminar taught by Ward. They will then take what they learn and teach it to their own cafeteria staff, with the goal of standardizing kitchen procedures and preparing better meals that students are excited to eat.

“We are looking at a total of 575 culinary personnel that we have to train,” Ward told the Rivard Report. “We aren’t trying to do a 180 and take everything they know and toss it out the window. It is taking everything they know and improving upon it.”

After spending a year and a half studying SAISD’s culinary processes, Ward designed his program’s curriculum around the food the district already uses.

Ward said he wants all the processes and recipes he uses in his seminar to fit in any kitchen in the district, whether it is “state-of-the-art or just bare bones.”

At the beginning of the training, though, Ward said he likes to “just throw [the kitchen managers] to the wolves” to get a good sense of how they communicate and operate in a kitchen environment.

On the first day of a recent seminar, after the managers read through the recipes, Ward gave straightforward instructions: Start cooking and complete the recipes within an hour.

In a scenario similar to a competition cooking show, culinary managers entered the kitchen and in a frenzy, began prepping ingredients for an apple-carrot salad, Asian veggie wraps, chicken salad sandwiches, pork banh mi, mangoes with Tajín seasoning, peach crisp, and Texas cobb sandwiches.

Participants divided into teams and went to work.

As Brenda Whitaker, manager at Sam Houston High School, stood at the stovetop, reducing fruit juice with cinnamon for the peach crisp dessert, Melissa Perez, who oversees a team at Poe Middle School, mashed up avocado for the cobb sandwich. Each of the managers focused on completing their tasks, all the while receiving prompts from Ward.

“Did you taste this?” Ward, adopting the role of cooking show host, asked the team making the apple-carrot salad. “How do you know it is good if you haven’t?”

When the hour ticked into its final minutes, one group of seven managers crowded around the Asian veggie wrap station, holding tortillas spread with globs of black bean puree in the air, as others attempted to stuff the wraps with strips of cucumber, red bell peppers, and red onions. Beans began to drop off the tortillas, and the hour ran out.

While no buzzer sounded and no culinary manager was “chopped” from the training seminar, Ward did use this haphazard assembly line as an example of how cooking can go awry without proper processes in place. He stressed the need for consistency and communication in school kitchens, where few of the employees have prior culinary experience.

“Public schools don’t have a culinary background, and there isn’t culinary experience needed to get a job with SAISD … so you have people in the hospitality industry that don’t have the experience,” Ward said. “They are feeding thousands of students each day. … It is a completely different animal that you need structure to do.”

SAISD provides meals to 95 district sites, serves 80,000 student meals every day, and 16 million student meals per year.

The scale of the SAISD’s culinary operations is why one of Ward’s key priorities for his trainees is to build strong lines of communication. This will help kitchens serve students better, Ward said, which is the ultimate priority.

Ward’s other big focus of the weeklong seminars is knife skills. On their first day, trainees learn proper techniques to chop vegetables into consistent sizes and shapes; throughout the week, Ward builds on this knowledge with additional lessons.

The weeklong seminar culminates with a grand finale luncheon that features a menu of fish and chips, chicken Parmesan sandwiches, Mediterranean veggie boats, and Southwest chicken salad with jalapeño honey mustard and honey butter rolls. All of the meals can be made with ingredients already used in SAISD kitchens.

Kris Brown, who manages the kitchen at Burbank High School and oversees a team that serves 800 meals each school day, said he was excited to participate in the program and thinks it will give him the opportunity to provide better meals to his students.

“We want to give our kids the freshest food possible, and this teaches us how to do it and how to do it well,” Brown said.

In the coming months, Ward will work with his newly trained managers to extend the training to the rest of SAISD’s culinary staff.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.