It all started with a Tweet…
Amanda Venezia, director of dining services for the Londonderry School District in New Hampshire, is a big fan of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson (Chopped, Red Rooster, etc.). So when Samuelsson conducted a question-and-answer session on Twitter recently to promote his new “Red Rooster Cookbook,” Venezia, who follows Samuelsson on the popular social media platform, responded with a query asking Samuelsson what he would serve on a high school lunch menu that would embody the Red Rooster style.
To her surprise and delight, Samuelsson not only responded but also provided a video message outlining his suggestions.
“It was the coolest,” Venezia says.
Once she got over the thrill of receiving an individualized shoutout from the famous culinarian, Venezia decided to follow through with his suggestions.
“So we [created] some of the items he had [mentioned] and put together a Chef Marcus Samuelsson Day,” she says.
The chef-inspired menu included Samuelsson’s suggested honey miso salmon as an entrée and beet and apple salad as a side. The Parmesan couscous Samuelsson suggested was changed to a tricolored quinoa because it was thought to be more appealing, Venezia says.
“It stayed with the spirit of what he was saying but quinoa is a little more palatable to our students as opposed to couscous—and the tricolor is just prettier,” she laughs.
Because the lunch menu at Londonderry High generally offers two entrée options, a crispy chicken sandwich topped with an Asian slaw was added to the mix. “It still had the feel of what he was trying to put forth with his cookbook,” Venezia explains, noting that students who were not feeling culinarily adventurous could have the sandwich with cole slaw on the side rather than the Asian slaw.
As it turned out, though, the Asian slaw proved so popular that it was served again later in the month as a topping on a pulled pork sandwich.
“Expanding [students’] culinary palate and introducing them to new flavors by capitalizing on the celebrity of a chef who interacted with us” was a goal of the event, Venezia says. The reaction “was very, very positive,” she adds. “I had my cooks saying that they saw faces they’ve never seen before.”
A Samuelsson cookbook was raffled off to a student at each lunch period and a signed cookbook was raffled to the teachers. “Our teacher participation [for lunch] was up about 300 percent over a normal day,” Venezia notes.
Among teens at the 1,518-student school, the bump was 16 percent above the average lunch participation rate.
“We’re really publicizing the good things we’re doing in the school lunch program to promote food [and how it looks] coming from the ground,” she says. For example, “this is what a real beet looks like, with the beet greens and all.”
The beets were roasted and diced, then combined with fresh local apples and coated with a scratch-made mustard vinaigrette and topped with feta cheese.
Of course, the special meal did entail a financial impact, with the food cost going considerably above the $1.50-to $2-per plate that Venezia tries to hold it at normally. The protein component of the salmon dish alone was around $1.80 per plate, she notes, but adds that the public relations and educational aspects of the meal more than compensated for the elevated one-time food cost.
Adapting the menu to federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) standards was not an issue as Londonderry High is not in the program. The school absorbs the cost of feeding the 10 percent of its enrollment that would qualify for free or reduced price meals under NSLP.
Generally, the daily lunch offerings at Londonderry High include two hot entrees plus a vegetarian option. On a recent day, the choices included a shepherd’s pie with garlic breadstick, an appetizer platter—one of her department’s most popular offerings, says Venezia—a half Caprese wrap, plus a spinach pie as the meatless option. The vegetable special of the day was spinach squares and broccoli and cheddar was the soup of the day. A well-stocked salad bar, fresh fruit and assorted sub sandwiches are also available daily.
One advantage the meal program has is that the lunch periods at the high school are 45 minutes long. “It gives students plenty of time to devote to eating and socializing,” Venezia offers. “It’s absolutely ideal.”