Chef uses student favorites from chain restaurants to create popular versions for school.
Last year the new Collegiate Academy high school opened in the Union Public Schools in Tulsa, Okla. Of the school’s $27 million bond, $3 million went into creating a state-of-the-art dining program. Because the school is so large—more than 100,000 square feet and eight stories—dining needed to be decentralized, almost like what’s found on a college campus, according to Eli Huff, executive chef and culinary operations coordinator. Huff designed nine dining concepts, including an energy bar, panini grill, Mexican and Italian. One of the student favorites is the Asian concept, Wok Works, and its Orange Sesame Chicken Stir-Fry. Huff talks to FSD about designing the concepts and the stir-fry.
“I was used to doing small-scale restaurants. As a chef, the challenges designing menus [for schools] were all over the place. First of all I had to figure out the regs. I spent a year designing the layout, specing equipment and designing the menus. We’ve come up with about 200 new recipes for the high schools in the past six months. About 20% to 30% were existing recipes. We tweaked a couple of things like adding orange vegetables or changing the cooking method to meet the new regs and add flavor. Even with those recipes, I still had to come up with more ideas to fit the nine different concepts that we had designed.
I had a list of the things I needed to follow for the new regs. Then I had an idea of what I wanted to do from a chef’s standpoint. And then I had the customers to think of and what the kids like. I researched online what kids like. I watched cooking shows that I had never watched before, like ones that are based on families because it’s insightful to see what moms and dads are cooking for their kids at home.
Another element that we really wanted to look at was buying locally. A local farm, Peachcrest, is growing between 30% and 40% of the produce for the entire district. We worked with the farmer to see what he could grow for us and we use that to plan our menus.
We still have off-campus lunch for seniors. We have a lot of competition around the high school. We want to compete to keep [students on campus]. I went into Panda Express to see what the kids were buying. I took the most popular two flavors—orange peel and honey sesame—and put them together. It turned into an orange sesame chicken dish. Then I went to the farm to figure out what vegetables I could use from there that would hold up in the wok—we had enough money when we designed the concept for me to purchase a wok. We don’t cook to order. There are three lunch periods for each grade and for each lunch period, we fire up the wok. The kids can see us cooking on the wok, almost like a show kitchen. Every time we run the dish it sells out.
The sauce is semi-housemade. We take a chili sauce and we’re adding things like ginger, garlic and chicken starch to that. I put the dish with steamed rice and a vegetable stir-fry. We found some sesame seeds to use as a garnish. We also serve fortune cookies with it. Instead of on a school food tray we put them in Asian to-go boxes. The kids see that and it looks like a real restaurant. This makes the kids think they don’t need to go to Panda. They can get it here for $2.10.”