Part 3 of Cafeteria Confidential: Berkeley, in which Ed Bruske reports on his recent week-long, firsthand look at how Berkeley, Calif., schools part ways from the typical school diet of frozen, industrially processed convenience foods. Cross-posted from The Slow Cook. And check out the rest of the Cafeteria Confidential series.

Chef Bonnie ChristensenBerkeley Public Schools Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen(Ed Bruske photos)Executive chef Bonnie Christensen was at her desk, holding forth on her troubles with labor unions, when her second-in-command, sous chef Joan Gallagher, walked into the kitchen office cradling a bunch of asparagus freshly picked and just arrived in a 350-pound delivery from Full Belly Farms, some 90 miles northeast near Sacramento.

Asparagus was entering peak season in California. Christensen and Gallagher planned to serve it in the Berkeley Unified School District school lunches the following week — a rare treat, since asparagus is otherwise cost-prohibitive.

Gallagher regarded the bundle of green spears with a smile and a kind of dreamy, beatific look, as if she were holding a newborn child. During my week working in Berkley’s central school kitchen, I often saw this expression on Gallagher’s face when some aspect of the cooking process particularly aroused her senses.

She might stop to admire a perfectly roasted chicken thigh, its skin like burnished mahogany. “Isn’t that great?” she’d say with a grin and a kind of awe in her voice. Or she would make a sharp detour into the area where I was peeling big, juicy lengths of fresh ginger root just a few feet from another kitchen worker chopping leafy fresh cilantro. The air was pungent with the mingling aromas of what would become a tandoori chicken marinade. “I just love the smell!” Gallagher would exclaim. “I just love it!”

Now she was regarding a bunch of fresh asparagus as if it were the first asparagus ever picked. She was transported. “Isn’t this great?” she said, cradling the asparagus, a smile playing on her face.

Christensen whisked herself in her rolling office chair to the spot where Gallagher was standing. A rapid huddle ensued over how best to prepare the asparagus to feed some 2,350 students at lunch six days hence. They would roast it, no question. But what sort of pan to use? A flat sheet pan? Or perhaps something deeper? How would they trim those 350 pounds of asparagus? How much of the stem end was edible?

Christensen broke off the end of one of the spears and bit into it. She chewed and considered, looking at the ceiling. Was it tough? Would those ends need to be removed? If so, by how much?

Her eyes suddenly lit up. “This is really fresh!” she declared. “I don’t think we need to cut much at all.” Okay, so when to do the cutting? Should they start prepping the asparagus now, on Friday, to sit in the refrigerator over the weekend? “I say don’t even cut them,” Christensen decided. “We’ll cut them next week.”

As quickly as it had started, the discussion was over. But it dawned on me that I had just witnessed something extremely rare: a meeting of the minds between two highly seasoned chefs over a question about how to cook school food.

This is not at all how most school meals are prepared. At my daughter’s elementary school in the District of Columbia, most of the meal components arrive frozen and pre-cooked based on a menu prepared by a nutritionist working in an office for Chartwells-Thompson, a huge, national school food service company that’s just one division of an even bigger, international food service conglomerate based in the United Kingdom — the Compass Group — that’s listed on the London stock exchange.

There now exist computer programs that allow food service administrators to easily create menus that comply with all of the various standards that govern the federally subsidized school meal programs. Corporate food processors also play an oversized role. They’ve developed meal components — those famous chicken tenders, tater tots, and breakfast pizzas — that specifically comply with federal nutrition requirements and prescribed serving sizes.

It all comes together in a system designed to eliminate complicated thinking and to a great extent, any raw products school kitchen workers might have to deal with. It’s the edible equivalent of a simple, paint-by-numbers set with water colors you might buy at a toy store.

The central school kitchen in Berkeley, by contrast, is the rare exception. There, food is cooked the old-fashioned way using raw, not processed, ingredients that must be transformed into meals on a grand scale every day. The only way to do that is with experienced chefs. Although they too must comply with all the federal rules — and live within a school budget — their overriding concern is what they call “the plate.” In the world of chefs, cooking is not just about meeting government standards or providing a prescribed number of nutrients. “The plate” is how chefs express culinary craft as something customers — in this case schoolchildren — will really want to eat. Think of a seasoned artist standing before a blank canvas with a palette of oils.