Colorado cafeteria workers learn about efficient meal planning from consultant Andrea Martin. (Photo by Ed Bruske.)

School cafeteria workers, a.k.a “lunch ladies,” rank somewhere below custodial staff in the school pecking order, yet they’re expected to perform miracles in the kitchen, turning pennies into full-blown meals. As part of my Cafeteria Confidential reporting, I recently went to Colorado to observe a “culinary boot camp” in which food-service directors and workers from around the state spent four days learning how to cook food from scratch, rather than with frozen convenience foods, and better use their meager finances to do so. The oldest among the 35 students was 78 and still going strong. Some were traumatized by the act of cutting food with real knives, but they were all eager to learn.

The Colorado Health Foundation is funding these sessions, four in all, using $400,000 in federal stimulus money channeled through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. I attended the first one, held in Adams County outside Denver.

Chef and school-food consultant Kate Adamick.

The students were divided into two groups that each spend half the day in class, half the day in the kitchen. The classroom sessions are taught by chef and school-food consultant Kate Adamick. If you read much about school food issues, you will recognize her name. Her byline appears over articles for The Atlantic’s food channel. Adamick preaches the gospel of universal free breakfast for all children, not only as a social-justice issue, but because it is a great way to generate cash for school food programs. She also believes schools need to eliminate flavored milk and other sugary foods, and kick the processed food habit.

In the classroom, Adamick teaches school cooks how to use government commodities to make meals from scratch. She thinks schools could get by on the money they already have for food, if they had more money for the equipment and training they need to cook fresh.

The kitchen portions are taught by New York chef Andrea Martin and three assistants, who also work with schools in Santa Barbara County, CA. Martin and Adamick were involved in the famous makeover of school meals in Berkeley, CA, working alongside Ann Cooper and Alice Waters. In fact, you can see strains of the Berkeley program running through these boot camps, as when the discussion turns to writing a four-week rotating menu plan. It’s categorized very much the same way as in Berkeley.

In the kitchen, the students alternated between 15-minute demonstrations of cooking techniques and actually cooking meal components. Each day they prepared a buffet breakfast and lunch.

One of the first concepts turned out to be a bit difficult to pronounce: mise en place. Literally translated from the French, it means “put in place,” and for a chef, it’s a universal credo about having everything ready and close at hand before you start cooking — having a plan, essentially.

Kitchen hygiene and avoiding cross-contamination are emphasized repeatedly in these classes. This session on handling chicken took me back to my week in Berkeley, where I spent my first day sorting 1,400 pounds of government commodity chicken for roasting. Here, the chicken would find its way into three different dishes. No nuggets to be seen. The finished spicy drumsticks and Asian-style thighs were my favorites — cooked to perfection.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the cameraderie among the women. They were always joking with each other, rubbing shoulders, patting each other on the back. They made kitchen work look fun. The white chefs jackets also seemd to me to instill a sense of pride and professionalism.

The camp slogan was “We Love Math,” referring all the fractions cooks need to learn and use every day. On graduation day, they received framed certificates to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The dishwashers received big bunches of flowers and huge applause. And for Kate Adamick and Andrea Martin, the class composed and sang a “Culinary Boot Camp Fight Song,” which I will  reprint it here for historical purposes.

Culinary Boot Camp Fight Song
Sung to the tune of “Camptown Races”

Culinary book camp’s almost done
So long, farewell
Can’t believe we’re nearly through
We’re still scared of you
So many that we want to thank
Live Well, Colorado
The Health Foundation really rocks
I hope I framed that right

Chorus:
Chef Kat’s really great
Even when she’s screaming ‘Don’t be late!’
Then there’s Andrea and her crew
You know that they are cool

Let’s review what we have learned
So much, so much
Knife skills, sauces, mis en place
Above all, remain calm!
Sanitation, grains, legumes
Asian barbecue
Taste components and lest we forget
We Love Math!

[Chorus]

Say no to chocolate milk and
Toss those nuggets out
School lunch will never be the same
We love our kids so cook from scratch!