Tahjhane Richardson(13) of Gary(Left) reaches for her sample of sauteed vegetables prepared by Chef Lucinda Roenicke of Miami,Florida(Right) during Chef-to-School Day at West Side Leadership Academy in Gary on Thursday. | Jeff Addison ~ Sun-Times Media
When West Side Leadership Academy’s seventh- and eighth-graders rushed inside the cafeteria April 18, they were surprised to see a buffet spread in addition to the usual menu of pizza, chicken nuggets and the like.
Thompson Hospitality executive chef Lucinda Roenicke of Miami smiled in her white uniform and chef’s hat as she and Gary Community School Corp. service employees began dishing samples of a Mediterranean medley to the curious and hungry.
Students sniffed, picked at and finally tasted the samples of sauteed zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes and onions, a cheesy spinach and tomato pasta bake, sandwiches with hummus, feta cheese and vegetables on whole wheat bread, pita chips, olives and feta cheese.
“The pasta is really good,” eighth-grade student Damon Person, 14, said. “I’ve never had Mediterranean food before.”
Seventh-grader Tatiana Dean, 13, said the sandwich was “all right” but was not too crazy about the cheesy spinach and tomato baked pasta.
The event was part of the Chefs 2 School program, which bring top chefs to schools. The chefs prepare various dishes that fit under the Food and Drug Administration guidelines for healthy meals in schools, and if the dishes are popular with the students, the items may be added to the school menus the next school year.
Chartwells Food Service’s director of dining services Keli Rouse of Gary said Chartwells has a partnership with Thompson’s Hospitality to do the Chefs 2 Schools program.
“We try to bring some healthy alternatives to our schools’ menus and with the food samples, see what the students lean toward in taste,” she said. “The FDA changes policies and now want more fruits and vegetables and whole grains added for nutrition value.”
Rouse works with Deborah Over, the resident district program manager for the GCSC.
Roenicke, a New York native, said she’s worked for Thompson’s Hospitality for three years after working with their partner, The Compass Group USA, for 14 years.
Roenicke is a 1983 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Roenicke added that Chartwells also do programs in urban school districts and historically black colleges and universities.
After the wild lunch rush of middle school students, Roenicke and the local food service workers relaxed and prepped for the high school students who were coming in 30 minutes later.
“I am truly enjoying this,” Roenicke said. “I even met a student who said he wants to be a chef.”
I’ve always enjoyed cooking,” she said. “I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was a child and my parents thought I was crazy. But, here I am.”