Past school lunches influence chefs when packing food for kids
Scripps Howard News Service
With photo/graphic: SH12H214SCHOOLLUNCHES, SH12H215SCHOOLLUNCHES
By DON WADE
Scripps Howard News Service
Like the best recipes, the ingredients that create a chef retain an element of mystery.
Sometimes, of course, it's easy to see -- and taste -- the influences. Jason Severs now has his own reputation as chef and owner of Memphis' Bari Ristorante e Enoteca and the more casual Three Angels Diner (barimemphis.com and threeangelsdiner.com). But he learned to appreciate food the old-fashioned way.
"I was always around women in the family who cooked and I was eating different things. My mom grew up in Italy," Severs says. "So I was the odd kid who brought pasta salad to school in his lunch; I never had Doritos or Cheetos. It was always something healthy."
Yet consider an opposite influence, such as the one endured by Ben Smith, chef and owner of Tsunami, a Pacific Rim cuisine restaurant in Memphis (tsunamimemphis.com). Both parents worked full time, his mother often working night shifts as a nurse. This left Dad to make the lunch that little Ben would take to school.
Dad had two -- count 'em -- two items on the menu: peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches ("I don't think I've eaten once since grade school," Smith says) and deviled ham, which Smith says he still eats.
Today, Smith does much better by his second-grade daughter, Ayden Couch-Smith, and fourth-grade son, Ian Couch-Smith. Likewise, Severs picks his spots to prepare "inspired" lunches for sons Lucian, 9; Julian, 5; and Matteo, 4.
"My oldest would be happy with a loaf of bread from Bari and olive oil as lunch," says Severs.
"My daughter, she'll eat anything you put in front of her," Smith says.
Well, anything that comes from Dad's kitchen, such as kale and quinoa as a side dish.
"As weird as it sounds, they'll eat it," Smith says of his kids.
Josh Belenchia, chef and owner at Buon Cibo ("Italian for 'good food' ") in the Mississippi town of Hernando (buonciborestaurant.com), says his 4-year-old daughter, Harper, has a "good palate," albeit one still evolving. Harper attends school from 8 a.m. to noon, eating at 11. Which is fashionably late compared to the 10 a.m. lunch period Smith's children.
All the chefs emphasize healthy choices (no bologna sandwiches for Harper, like her dad had growing up) and even the way they pack water is done with an eye toward conservation and education.
"We try to recycle as much as possible, so we don't buy bottled water," Severs says, adding that tap water and ice in a thermos works just fine.
Just as Severs never carried Cheetos in his lunch, his sons do not get Oreos. However, Dad will surprise them with some homemade banana bread -- a delicacy no doubt several rungs up the culinary ladder from the peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches put together by Smith's father.
Smith says his parents' work schedule also had an impact on dinners, such as they were, and shaped his attitude toward food.
"My brother and sister were happy to survive on fish sticks and cheese toast," he says. "I couldn't stand fish sticks and started rooting around in the refrigerator, pulling stuff out, experimenting with food in self-defense."
The same thing happened at the school cafeteria.
"I liked the school lunch," Smith says. "It was fun going through the line, getting the tray. I remember there was always Jell-O included and a straw was the preferred utensil for Jell-O."
His creativity did not stop there. Smith and his buddies made their own desserts by buying two oatmeal cookies and some ice cream (think small cup and little wooden spoon). That's all they needed to -- presto! -- make ice-cream sandwiches.
"The whole hands-on element had a more cerebral effect on me," Smith says, wondering if that's where the chef in him was born. "When I first got turned on to it, it was the coolest thing ever."
Now, the children of chefs might be packing some of the coolest lunches ever -- not that their peers would necessarily appreciate the special breads, salads and soups made from scratch. After all, an Oreo or a bag of Doritos can be a temptation for any child across the school lunch table.
So even as Belenchia praises his daughter's maturing palate, he understands that the lunch he makes with his loving hands could wind up in the hands of a stranger if the deal is good enough. But he is also confident that some days Harper will have the leverage.
"I think as she grows older, she'll have her favorite things and maybe certain days I will do something special for her and she'll be like, 'awesome,' " he says. "Maybe the other kids will be envious."
1 box penne (or other pasta of your choice)
1 tomato, chopped
1 roasted yellow pepper, diced
Kalamata olives, chopped
Italian parsley, chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process.
In a large bowl, mix the pasta, the tomatoes, peppers, olives, parsley and basil.
Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add salt and pepper to taste. Note: There is no right or wrong way to make this pasta salad. I usually make it with whatever I have already at the house the night before, and put it in their lunch the next day.
-- Jason Severs
BLACK BEAN AND ZUCCHINI CHILAQUILES
20 tortilla chips
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium green pepper, diced
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
1 tablespoon chile powder
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
1 small zucchini, diced
1 small to medium yellow squash, diced
1-2 jalapenos, depending on your heat tolerance, chopped fine
2 cups cooked black beans
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
10 ounces grated cheddar cheese or a mixture of cheddar and Monterrey Jack cheese
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onions. Saute until they begin to soften, then add the bell pepper. Cook for one minute, then add the chile powder and the cumin, stirring until the vegetables are coated and aromatic.
Add the zucchini and squash, the tomatoes, the black beans, jalapenos and the oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook 5 minutes or so.
Line the bottom of a casserole dish with half of the tortilla chips. Top with half of the vegetable mixture and then a layer of half the cheese. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted.
Serve alone or with rice, freshly sliced avocado and lime wedges, if desired.
-- Ben Smith
(Don Wade writes for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.)