When it’s lunchtime at St. Anne School in Laguna Niguel, Calif., students can contemplate ordering items such as a New York strip steak sandwich, or barbecued pulled pork sliders with pineapple coleslaw, courtesy of Chef Azmin Ghahreman.
Since 2009, Ghahreman, who is the owner and chef of Sapphire Laguna in Laguna Beach, Calif., has been providing school meals to St. Anne School as part of the Sapphire at School program. Over the past six years, Ghahreman has watched the students gravitate from bringing in “pizza or a cup of noodles to reheat in a microwave” to trying menu items such as a chicken-apple salad lavash wrap with yogurt dressing. Since then, Ghahreman has signed on with seven more Southern California schools.
Ghahreman’s staff encourages students to try new foods by telling them what ingredients are included in each item.
“We don’t blend carrots and celery [into ground meat] and hide it underneath a burger bun so that when they take a bite, they no longer trust us,” says Ghahreman.
Students have even become willing to try items beyond their favorite comfort foods. For example, miso soup has become a favorite on chilly days, he says.
Ghahreman says he created Sapphire at School because he wanted to play a role in making school meals healthier to help combat issues such as childhood obesity and other diet-related illnesses. The chef’s culinary focus on the Mediterranean food pyramid—which centers on a daily intake of fresh produce, grains and legumes—was a good match for St. Anne School, which wanted to create healthier meals for its students while broadening their culinary perspective.
“We want our kids to be world aware,” says St. Anne School Headmaster Randy Adams. “The fact that they come to school and anticipate [the menu]—the bar has really been raised as far as what they eat.”
Students are also discussing their emerging culinary tastes with their parents. Adams relates a story about a student who was raving to his parents about a beef sandwich that he had for lunch. “When they asked, ‘So what did you like about it?’ the student responded, ‘The sauce,’” says Adams, noting that Ghahreman had added a hint of horseradish to the mayonnaise. “Only chef would be able to pull this off.”
Adams adds that the schools tries to involve parents in the foodservice program as much as possible. For example, parents are notified of the upcoming month’s menu items and are given the opportunity to pre-order items for their children.
“A number of families tell us how Sapphire at School has changed their eating habits at home,” Adams says. “It’s through the kids.”