At A Glance: NYC Board of Education SchoolFood
•Location: Queens, N.Y.
•Enrollment: 1.08 million
•Foodservice Director: David Berkowitz
•Scope of Operation: Serving more than 156 million breakfasts and lunches per year to students in more than 1,600 schools
•Annual Budget: $365 million
•No. of Staff: 11,000
"You come here with five; you want to leave with five," he says, not unkindly.
The scene is ordinarily typical of a first-semester class at any culinary school. But in this case the "student" is a veteran foodservice employee for SchoolFood, the foodservice arm of the New York City Board of Education, and Conio is a regional chef for SchoolFood's Staten Island district. They are among the participants in one of a series of two-day-long classes designed to improve the cooking skills of at least some of the men and women preparing meals for more than one million schoolchildren in New York's 1,600 public schools.
The ICE machine: The program, now in its second year, is a collaboration between SchoolFood and ICE. The school, located in Manhattan, donates the space and instructors for the classes each August, through which some 160 school foodservice workers have been trained.
"We wanted to raise people's consciousness about food and celebrate food in a way city agencies usually don't do," says Jorge Collazo, corporate executive chef for SchoolFood. "Our goal here is to give these people practical ideas to take back to their kitchens."
Collazo, who joined SchoolFood in 2003 after many years as a restaurant chef and educator, also notes that, for many of these people, the classes are their first inside a culinary school. "So we're giving them an experience that makes them feel good about themselves," he says.
The classes, each spanning the course of two mornings, focuses on different ways cooks can use the ingredients commonly found in New York City school kitchens. Students are chosen by their supervisors to attend the classes, which makes the training a reward, rather than an obligation.
To the test: Each class, typically 15 to 18 students, is divided into teams. Each team is responsible for following assigned recipes to create a variety of dishes, which are taste-tested at the end of the day. One recent Day One class focused on sauces (barbecue, curry, primavera, Spanish and sweet and sour), and pairing them with baked scrod, roasted chicken breasts, baked tofu, spaghetti and rice.
The second day focused on Asian dishes, such as cold noodles with peanut sauce, tofu scramble, stir-fry vegetables with crisp noodles, and tofu dressing.
Getting together: The seed for these training sessions was planted at a City Harvest fund-raiser, when City Harvest's chief of program services, Jill Stephens, introduced Collazo and SchoolFood executive director David Berkowitz to Rick Smilow, president of the ICE.
"I was impressed with some of the changes made by Chef Collazo and Mr. Berkowitz, the new attitude within the department and the new way they're running the program," says Smilow, whose school periodically offers support for non-profit groups and "other good causes."
Rapt attention: Sitting in on a session, it was obvious the students were grateful to be afforded the opportunity. They hung on every word as Conio, Herman Linial, a SchoolFood regional chef for Queens, and ICE instructor Karen Schley explained cooking techniques, knife skills, garnishing and plate presentation.
"I'm very glad to be here," says Juanita Camacho, a cook with P.S. 361 in Brooklyn. "I'm learning a lot. I was particularly interested in the way we made the tofu, because I use tofu a lot."
Peter Isaac, a cook at J.H. 189 in Flushing, Queens, is one of the few participants who is a culinary school graduate. Yet he also believes he will take something away from the class.
"It's inspirational," he says. "It makes you want to do more. One thing the classes show people is that recipes are a matter of measurements. They learn to follow the recipes, instead of guessing, because it's very important that the food taste the same every time you serve it."
Having fun: Conio and Linial say they also get jazzed by participating in the classes. "We're not here to criticize," notes Conio, who worked in restaurants and country clubs before joining SchoolFood two years ago. "We are here to encourage, to enhance their skills. And it's fun."
Says Linial, "I like to train, to show the staffs new things. And then you go back to visit the schools and you can see the difference."
Collazo says he knows that, with more than 4,000 foodservice workers cooking in New York's 1,400 schools, training 160 people in two years is a mere drop in the bucket. "We don't know where the benefit will come from," he adds."Sometimes it's difficult to include some of the items they prepare here in their menus [in the schools]. But if the classes inspire them to garnish the food, present it differently, and otherwise improve it, there's a takeaway. So, some [students] will replicate, some will adapt and some will take away inspiration."