Waters had met chef Ann Cooper when she toured the Ross School, an exclusive school in New York’s Hamptons, where Cooper, a former restaurant chef and dynamo advocate of healthy school food, was running food service. Cooper was planning to leave the school and take a “100-day vacation” to think about what she wanted to do next. She and Waters met again at a seafood sustainability conference in Monterey, Calif., and slipped away to Waters’s hotel room for breakfast, where Waters asked Cooper to move to Berkeley and take over as the new food services director.

No, said Cooper.

“I said I didn’t want to deal with day-to-day stuff,” Cooper explains. “I don’t really know public schools. Instead, we agreed I would come on as a consultant to help make the change. I’d do an assessment.”

Waters agreed to pay Cooper a “$100,000-ish” fee through the Chez Panisse Foundation. Cooper wanted to use the money that the school system would have paid her as food services director to create three new positions for the central kitchen: executive chef and two sous chefs, one to run kitchen production and another to handle food procurement.

It was a bumpy transition.

“In defense of all these food service people across the country, we’ve had this system for the last three decades and the USDA has been supporting it. Then a chef comes in and says, ‘This is not good food, we shouldn’t be serving it to kids, the guidelines are wrong, the USDA is wrong, and you are wrong. That’s a very difficult change to make,” Cooper recalls. “So I have a lot of empathy for these people who’ve been trying to do the right thing. It’s very, very hard to make those changes, emotionally.

“It was really hard for a number of reasons. My entire background was being a chef. At Ross School, it was still like being a chef. We had a large budget, and we were cooking really fine food and catering. I went to Berkeley and there were challenges with me being caught between the Chez Panisse Foundation and school food services. It wasn’t happening as fast as Alice would like. There was a lot of pushback from the employees and from the kids. In a school district, you have thousands of bosses. All of a sudden, not only are you not omnipotent, you have to change the way you do things. Before, you didn’t have to beg people for money, you didn’t have to beg kids to eat your food.”

Eric Weaver says Cooper worked “like the Energizer Bunny. She was always working. She never sleeps.”

Cooper says, “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A lot of my friends thought I was going to kill myself because I was literally working around the clock.”

Not an easy change to swallow

Until construction of the $8 million Dining Commons and its new kitchen on the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School campus, the central kitchen where Cooper would work initially was located in cramped quarters at an elementary school. “It was a hell hole,” says current Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen. Meanwhile, Cooper said she had meetings with food service employees who shouted at her that the kids hated the new food, and they didn’t want to serve it. Some of them went to the food services director “in tears.”

But there came a time when the entire crew moved into their new digs in the Dining Commons. In the huge new kitchen, there were six walk-in refrigerators and a freezer, seeming miles of work tables and sinks, griddles, grills, convection ovens, a combination steamer-roaster, a big kettle cooker, a tilt skillet, and a room with commercial dishwashers.

Kids eating lunchStudents in the MLK, Jr. Dining CommonsWeaver says the new facility is “a little overdone.” The tables and chairs for the dining room, for instance, were commissioned from Wowhaus, an arts collaborative in Sonoma County that “explores the common denominators of everyday experience, the central question of how things, places and relationships acquire meaning” through sculptures, murals and furniture.

“Alice had this idea of kids growing their own food, cooking their own food. The kitchen would have looked like Chez Panisse,” says Weaver. “But without her pushing and pushing, it never would have happened the way it did.” Still, the spa-like Dining Commons has created some conflict within the school system. “Everything is so wonderful at King, and not so wonderful at other schools.”

Christensen says some of the equipment in the old kitchen was actually bigger and better. But now the chefs at least had room to stretch their wings. The new and improved Berkeley central kitchen was ready to fly.

Next: How seasoned chefs make cooking from scratch a reality.

Watch a video tour of the King Dining Commons with Ann Cooper: