DISHING IT OUT
Mystery meat is gone from the school lunch menus, but sometimes it takes a little prodding to get students to try new things.
For Josh Good, a regional chef with Taher Inc., it takes more than toiling over an elaborate dish to get students to try some of his cuisine. Many times, it requires a bright smile and an appeal to students’ adventurous sides.
Taher, which runs the food service program for the Shawano School District, has a roving chef program where chefs such as Good travel to districts for a day or two each month to cook up a meal that wouldn’t normally be part of the menu. This week, Good prepared a Thai noodle bowl with chicken and vegetables for students at Shawano Community Middle School and Shawano Community High School.
“We have chefs that, every year, go to a different country, and for an entire week, all they do is eat, take pictures, take notes,” Good said. “They come back and write recipes off of all that. The idea is that, with our customers, we want to come in and make food that is ethnically authentic.”
Most middle school and high school students don’t get the chance to go to other countries to try different cuisine, Good said, and rural areas such as Shawano County do not offer an abundance of ethnic eateries where people can sample new things.
“I’ve done Vietnamese, Moroccan, all these different countries,” Good said. “They’re not going to get the chance, unless they go to Milwaukee or Chicago, to try these dishes, and most kids are not going to waste their money on trying something different because they’re scared to.”
The Thai noodle bowl was a hit with Ben Cook, a sixth-grade student at SCMS. He tried the noodles with the curry lime coconut sauce for lunch Wednesday and enjoyed it.
Cook said he tries the special dishes whenever Good or other chefs come to school.
“The Thai noodle bowl is my favorite,” he said. “It’s just the flavor.”
While students like Cook show Good he is succeeding with his dishes, he has to work to break through the stereotypes that certain things are too hot, too sour or too exotic
Good went to the high school Tuesday with the same Thai dish, and he noted that some of the students were apprehensive about the curry sauce. There was a homemade sweet-and-sour sauce as an alternative, but Good pushed for the curry sauce.
“They think with curry that it’s going to be super spicy, and they’re not going to be able to taste anything. That’s not the case,” Good said.
While the Thai dish was fun to prepare, Good’s favorite meal for the current school year is the Israeli turkey shawarma he prepared in January for students. The dish is prepared with turkey and a variety of vegetables on flatbread with a mayo honey sauce that contains sweet yellow curry.
“It’s roasted turkey that I shred up by hand. I cook it until you can’t even pick it up. It’s basically falling apart,” Good said. “The kids think it’s chicken or tuna, and I’m like, ‘No, it’s roasted turkey that I cooked for four hours and shredded it all.’”
Most of Good’s meals are prepared for the middle and high schools, although he travels to the elementary schools to teach them about various fruits.
Two main factors keeping dishes such as the Thai noodles and the shawarma from becoming a regular part of Shawano school menus are the expense of the ingredients and the time it takes to prepare them. Limited staff time, combined with Taher’s efforts to keep food costs down, are what make the roving chef program so vital, Good said.
“I’m using a lot more spices, and some of it is more technically challenging than a regular school meal would be,” he said.
Good has been involved with restaurants in one form or fashion since he was 12 years old. He spent a year in formal training at the Culinary Institute of America, but decided to leave after he spent more time helping the students with skills he already had.
“For me with food, I think it allows me to take care of others,” Good said. “I enjoy seeing people eat what I’ve made or created and be happy from that experience. I’ve always been that way. It’s not about what I’m going to get in return.”
Good has been coming to Shawano schools for two years now, and he is starting to develop a rapport with students. He said some students who normally bring their lunch to school will pay for lunch on the days he is there just to try what he prepares.
In the end, Good knows he’s not going to convert all the students, but those who do take the plunge always bring a smile to his face.
“You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you don’t try it. I’m just happy when you do try something different that you’ve never had,” Good said.