How Executive Chef Trina Nelson is bringing culinary excellence to Dallas ISD

Nelson is responsible for leading the district’s first ever Chef Team, which aims to develop recipes that will get students excited about school meals.
Chef Trina Nelson
Executive Chef Trina Nelson works with the district's Chef Team to create new recipes for students. | Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) Executive Chef Trina Nelson has always had a passion for cooking. Some of her earliest memories include making breakfast for herself and her younger brother before they left for school.

“I was that kid that didn't watch Saturday morning cartoons,” she says. “Instead, I watched shows like Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet on PBS.”

Fast forward to today, Nelson has expanded from making sure she and her brother had a healthy start to the school day to making sure that the thousands of students at Dallas ISD are well fed and ready to learn.

Finding her way to Dallas ISD

Nelson graduated from the University of Illinois. During school, she kept up with cooking by preparing meals for the various sports teams on campus.

After graduation, Nelson ended up going to culinary school in Chicago at Le Cordon Bleu and from there, worked many jobs in the food industry, including overseeing catering and concessions at Navy Pier in Chicago, opening her own catering company, teaching culinary arts at a community college and a stint at Corner Bakery.

Immediately prior to coming to Dallas ISD, Nelson worked as a culinary instructor for Le Cordon Bleu in Dallas. After the company shut down its U.S. campuses, Nelson was invited to instruct in Europe, but since her daughter was only 10 years old at the time, she passed. Shortly after, Dallas ISD came calling.

“One of my [Le Cordon Bleu] students was the catering supervisor at Dallas ISD,” says Nelson. “She came to class one night, and she says, ‘Chef, we have a brand new director, and she's looking to really grow our central kitchen, as well as our catering department and she's looking to open up a cafe where our culinary students can do their work study’ and I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

Her first job with the district was a dual central kitchen manager and executive chef role where she managed production at the district’s 153,575 square-foot centralized kitchen.

While coming up with recipes that meet the School Nutrition Standards was a change for Nelson since was used to having no nutritional restrictions in her previous jobs, she used the regulations as a way to push herself.

“It just challenged me to be more creative within the boundaries of what we're able to do,” she says.

One of the first tasks in her new position was working with the nutrition director to get the district’s smoothie program up and running.

They created a smoothie recipe using just fruit, yogurt and juice. The smoothie is produced in the central kitchen where it is then bagged, frozen and delivered to the district’s cafeterias. It is served with an oatmeal bar to form a compliant meal.

Leading the chef team

Nelson was the Central Kitchen Manager for about five and a half years. She eventually left the central kitchen during the pandemic after she received a call from the nutrition director asking her if she’d like to form and lead the district’s first ever Chef Team.

Now, in her current role, Nelson is tasked primarily with thinking up new dishes that will excite students and also reflect their cultural heritage. When not developing new recipes for the menu, you can often find her visiting with students in the cafeterias and handing out samples.

Recently, she tested a vegetarian street taco and was blown away by the response.

“[The students] were like, ‘Oh my gosh this was so good!’” she says.

Along with continuing to do more in-person taste testing with students, Nelson would also like to increase the amount of nutrition education opportunities for students so they can learn more about the different foods they’re trying.

“Kids eat with their eyes, right? And if they see something up there that they'd never ever seen before, they're not going to touch it,” she says.

Dallas ISD also has a culinary arts department, and Nelson would love to find ways to partner with those students in the future.

With so many plans in the works, Nelson is focusing on making sure she takes time to recharge, something she’s learned throughout her career as a working single mom. Her advice to other women in the industry is to make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing and also to take time for yourself each day, even if it’s only a few minutes.

“You have to be patient with yourself,” she notes. “You have to give yourself an opportunity to rest.”



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