Skip navigation
The Cafe in the Trees

The Cafe in the Trees

Ross students continuously learn about food and nutrition through hands-on activities, gardening projects and extensive tie-ins with the curriculum.

A brick, wood-fired pizza oven provides a glamorous sight and enviable meal options.

Meals set out in the stylish servery reflect the R.O.S.S. mantra: regional, organic, seasonal, sustainable.

A tight and challenging back-of-the-house footprint ¯ in which facilities are spread over three separate floors ¯ doesn't hamper staff's ability to produce eye-popping fare.

In East Hampton, NY, there's a school cafeteria ensconced in a beautiful, 140 acre, wooded campus, where students, faculty and staff enjoy two daily, universal (and mostly organic) meals while they dine "among the trees." That is, they savor their sumptuous, complimentary breakfasts and lunches while gazing into a canopy of oak trees through the expansive windows of their airy, third-floor dining room. It's as snappy as anything a top drawer corporate foodservice could wish for.

It's the cafè at the Ross School, a 4th to 12th grade, private educational institution where the student-tocomputer ratio is better than one-to-one; where trips around the globe are part of the high school's curriculum; and where surfing is one of the PE electives. If you're tempted to think this is just an elitist enclave for privileged children of the wealthy, think again.

Consider that it's also a school in which nearly 50 percent of the students qualify for need-based financial aid and 43 percent of recent graduates were the first in their families to go to college. It's a school where comprehensive service projects stand behind the motto, "know thyself in order to serve"; and where students are immersed in inter-disciplinary, cultural history-oriented study.

It's also a school in which the foodservice department, currently headed by Executive Chef Beth Collins, commands an enviable level of respect and appreciation from the administration to the students and parents¯even after imposing considerable slashes to its operational budget almost two years ago, that did away with some cherished menu items. Taken seriously for its expertise, the department figures significantly into the curriculum and nutrition education efforts of the school¯a mere dream for many a public school foodservice director.

Food Philosophy
Founded in 1991, with three initial students, the school was so small in its first years that meals were brought in from a local diner and served in an available room. But, Collins explains, "as the school expanded enough to develop its wellness curriculum, the notion of feeding children healthy, organic food was an important focus for the founder."

Thus, the Center for Well-Being, an architectural gem on an already handsome campus, was conceived and designed to house not only the kitchen and dining room, but also the gym, areas for wellness and nutrition education, and facilities for performing arts. It opened in August 2000.

A wide-scale search for a chef yielded Ann Cooper, who left her position as executive chef at the Putney Inn in Vermont to shape and guide the program in order to deliver inviting food produced with "green" principles. (She soon hired Collins, also a former restaurant executive chef, who was willing to take a pay cut and title downgrade to line cook, just so she could "work in a place that was committed to something I had a strong focus on¯local food, farmers, and fabulous ingredients.")

Although the Ross School isn't really an acronym (it was named after its founders, Courtney and Steven Ross), the whole campus embraces the idea that it stands for Regional, Organic, Seasonal, Sustainable. (The school even refers to the R.O.S.S. definition in its brochures.)

What that means in practice, Collins notes, is that 85 percent of the fresh produce served in the cafe comes from local suppliers. "Almost everything" brought into the kitchen is organic, including all grains, beans, sugar, and produce. All-natural poultry, although not strictly organic, gets delivered twice a week from regional breeders who use vegetarian feed and no antibiotics.

Adhering to true seasonal guidelines can be tough during New York winters, but the staff processes and freezes many items in spring and summer to brighten up plates through the sparser months. Sometimes blanching first, sometimes freezing outright, they prepare locally-grown asparagus, snap peas, red and yellow bell peppers, string beans, zucchini, summer squash, berries, and peaches for meals later in the year.

Throughout the late summer, about 4,000 pounds of organic paste tomatoes roll through the kitchen, as they're steadily processed into sauce. On the flip side, Collins also contracts with local growers to store "several tons" of root vegetables such as carrots, beets, rutabagas, parsnips, potatoes and cabbage for later use.

The sustainable aspect, which incorporates buying locally from farmers, breeders, fishmongers and suppliers who employ environmentallyfriendly processes to grow and harvest their products, also overlaps with other operational practices. For instance, Ross diners know to scrape all their food waste into bins that get transported to a local farm for composting; they also assiduously recycle. Collins researched and found green cleaning products, and she eschews disposables in the cafe.

But the no-disposables stance at Ross means more than just utilizing real plates, glasses and flatware. The kitchen won't put out individual plastic water bottles or milk cartons, or swathe cookies in plastic wrap. And there are certainly no takeout containers provided (especially since eating communally is part of the school philosophy).

Staff serves water from the filtered faucets in the kitchen or dining room, transferring it into ten-gallon, insulated beverage dispensers. Those dispensers join similar containers holding the rest of the beverage lineup: milk from a local dairy, plain soy milk, unsweetened iced tea, pressed apple cider, and fresh orange and grapefruit juice for breakfast. Coffee is available for adults only, and bags for hot plain or herbal tea are also on hand daily.

Culinary Heaven
When the facility debuted back in 2000, the new chef, sous chefs and line cooks right away began churning out menus that sounded like something out of a culinary fairy tale. This, despite a floor plan that spreads production facilities among three different floors, in order to achieve the founder's vision of dining among the trees.

In the beginning, the school's menu was especially ambitious. It offered everything from Eggs Benedict and crðme brulee to pre-peeled and separated hard boiled eggs and home-made pickles.

Collins chuckles as she recalls, "It was very laboratory-esque, very elaborate, but it was too much. We needed to streamline the program and do some belt tightening, especially if we were to be a model for other schools looking to adopt environmentally protective and sustainable programs."

So the department re-engineered itself in the spring of 2004. Cooper, who had already moved from hands-on executive chef duties into a more consultative role, ended up redlining herself out of the budget as part of a 40 percent staff reduction plan (she still maintains close ties to the school). Collins, elevated to top toque, absorbed "three to four additional positions" into her job description, including purchasing, administrative interfacing and teaching (and she serves on the buffet line, too). She then continued to reign in expenses by trimming menu offerings, simplifying operations, improving production efficiency, cross-training all staff, and establishing greater oversight of portion control.

Practicality Prevails
The results? Gone is the pastry chef¯and desserts, too, for that matter, except on Fridays, when they're most likely to be cookies or brownies. (As Collins emphasizes, "I can totally justify cutting back on desserts in a school setting!")

Kids peel their own hard-boiled eggs now; pickles are purchased; and pizza from the wood-fired oven is served just on Wednesdays.

"We used to be liberal in protein use as a center-of-the-plate item, but we scaled back on that, as well as on the number of times beef appears on the menu," Collins notes.

Some days are completely vegetarian now, so the choices for entrees (reduced to two) might be between pasta with pesto and pine nuts and grilled cheese, for example. A tofu item is available every day.

For the first time, the kitchen staff implemented portion controls this year. With the help of faculty and the school's nutrition specialist, Collins and her staff watch over and gently encourage students to make good choices.

"We're limiting items that are a bit more labor-intensive or higher in cost to two servings per person now," Collins says. "When kids come back up after the limit, we'll suggest they try something else, say bulgur or tomato salad, instead."

Through these efforts, Collins reports, "we're spending 44 percent less now on food than we did in the 2003-04 school year." She adds that food costs are now in the 25 percent range, and calculates the cost of two meals per person per day at about $3.19 (which includes the availability of unlimited fresh fruit in all buildings on campus).

With staff down from a one-time high of 29 employees to 17, Collins also confronted the difficult decision to terminate culinary classes for the neighboring community and a feeding contract in which she supplied meals to a local public school. "Both programs were enthusiastically received," she says, "but they just weren't cost effective for us to continue with smaller numbers of staff on hand."

With so many changes, and so many treats disappearing, did some grumbling ensue? Not at all, Collins insists. Aware that the cafe was making cuts while endeavoring to develop more healthful and sustainable food choices, faculty and even students were supportive, she says.

"The universal feeding program is a real commitment of the founder. It's part of the Ross experience," Collins explains. "The fact that everybody on campus eats is a major perk; most people can't believe it's covered. Everyone loves the food, and we get lots of kudos."

Ample Pleasures Remain
And after all, what would there really be to complain about? The core values¯ flavorful, organic, healthful foods made from fresh, local ingredients¯still drive the program. And the cafè, Collins says, is " commonly referred to as the 'best restaurant in the Hamptons.'"

Just about everything in the Ross kitchen is made from scratch, and that includes all salad dressings and mayonnaise. Batch cooking ensures a steady supply of continuouslyprepared food throughout the lunch periods. Breakfast still consists of fresh fruit, multiple choices of hot and cold cereals, housemade granola, three kinds of yogurt, cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs and three or more varieties of bread with accompanying jams, cream cheese and peanut butter.

A daily salad bar includes four rotating seasonal produce items and protein toppings along with salad greens, carrots, mixed nuts and hard-boiled eggs. Lunch selections this past September, for instance, frequently included additional salad options on the serving line: local heirloom tomato slices, Caesar salads, potato salads with green beans, Asian chicken salad with miso dressing, and tomatoes with mozzarella.

Entrees range from chicken quesadillas and Cuban sandwiches to pasta with summer squash, Hong Kong noodle stir fry with veggies and tofu, baked ham with peach sauce, roast chicken, Mediterranean wraps, and tempeh with sweet and spicy citrus sauce.

Nutritious sides during autumn include roasted eggplant with spicy Asian sauce, sautèed greens, broccoli rabe or bok choy, cups of soup, bulgur, beans and brown rice.

Collins also ties in frequent special meal themes with the curriculum or upcoming travel exploits of a particular class, often aided by student input and research. Working with student menu planners, she has presented lunches featuring foods from ancient Greek and Mayan culture as well as modern-day examples from Kenya, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Italy, Spain and New Orleans, among others. Often, the events involve hands-on activities, too, such as making fresh pasta or Mayan hot chocolate.

Nutrition Education: More than an Afterthought
Such efforts illustrate the ongoing overlap and interplay between foodservice and nutrition education efforts at the school.

Hailey London, R.D., chair of wellness/nutrition specialist at Ross, teaches nutrition at every grade level during the students' health programs. Techniques range from an "eat your colors" approach in the early grades, to concentrating on each letter of the R.O.S.S. "acronym" for middle schoolers. While academic instructors are teaching about the Mayan civilization, for instance, she's talking about the nutritive components of their early diets and staging a corn-grinding demonstration. Then in the cafeteria that day, Collins is preparing a menu to reflect the time period and teaching students to make tamales.

Since part of the graduation requirement entails students' knowing how to plan and cook a complete meal, the food team tackles that task with 10th graders. "That grade is learning about French culture during the 18th and 19th centuries, so they research the period's menus and learn about food in that time period, then come to the cafe one afternoon when we cook the meal, eat it together and critique it," Collins says.

Upper grades, which have moved on to learning about contemporary issues, also explore the "politics of nutrition and food," Collins says. "We find that Ross students who have decided to become vegetarians tend to do it not so much because they don't want to eat animals, but because of the impact on the planet that raising animals for food causes."

In a culinary arts elective available to seniors in the spring semester, students spend two days a week studying nutrition and two days in a small kitchen constructed within another building, separate from the cafe. After a period of training, the budding culinarians will begin to help out in the cafe kitchen during lunch this year, as well.

A school garden overseen by Collins serves as a further resource for teaching students about food and nutrition.

Collins explains that one of the reasons nutrition education weaves so easily through the foodservice department and academics is that the school's trademark cultural history-dominated curriculum is the ideal platform for it.

"The entire curriculum here at Ross focuses on culture, and food is the common denominator among all cultures. Food is culture," she says.

The Ross School
Established in 1991 by Courtney and Steven J. Ross (the late, former head of Time Warner), the Ross School is a co-ed, private, non-profit day school located in East Hampton, NY. Currently, 345 students are enrolled in grades 4 through 12 at this self-proclaimed "laboratory for educational excellence through in-depth research and development, technological partnerships and innovative curriculum planning."

Although plenty of schools will claim they take an interdisciplinary approach to instruction, pulling similar themes through different course materials for broader student understanding, the Ross School jumps into the idea wholeheartedly, developing its teaching methods around cultural history and a "spiral of learning." The idea, according to the curriculum statement, is to teach through all disciplines,starting in the early grades, "an ascending spiral of historical events, plotted chronologically, from pre-history to the future, with the student educationally situated in the center of this expanding form. Such a pivoting vantage point allows multiple, simultaneous, and comparative views of the events of a universal history and growth of knowledge."

On campus, besides engaging in interactive academic studies, students have access to the latest in technology (partnerships with high tech firms ensure up-to-date equipment and resources); the Center for Well-Being

(which incorporates the cafe, gymnasium, performing arts stage, library and meditation room); a rich arts curriculum; physical education programs that extend beyond traditional athletics to include tai chi, yoga, fencing, pilates, mountain biking, and, yes, even surfing; school-wide community service projects; and annual opportunities for national and international travel.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.