Learning to serve themselves

Yesenia Conda (right) and Jackie Zavala team up to prepare a dairy-free Cajun Alfredo dish Friday at New School. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Chef teaches culinary skills for school lunches

WATSONVILLE — About a month ago, teachers at New School in Watsonville asked the students what they would like to see changed.

Among the many answers, one stood out for teacher Emily Halbig.

“One of the things they say is that the food is awful,” she said.

Halbig was referring to the lunches provided by the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, many of which come prepackaged, are reheated in their plastic casing and contain “almost no” vegetables.

And so Halbig and fellow New School teacher Bryan Love connected with Soquel chef Jamie Smith, whose company Foodsmith makes and delivers ready-made meals to customers throughout Santa Cruz County.

He describes the service as, “Healthy food for people who don’t like to cook.”

A former Chef de Cuisine of the University of California Santa Cruz and Food Service Director of Santa Cruz City Schools, Smith was the ideal contact for Halbig, whose vision to create a cooking program at the school comes to life every Friday.

That’s when Smith brings ingredients, cooking equipment and years of culinary mastery to New School, where students take turns chopping, measuring, simmering, cooking and cleaning to prepare lunch, which is then eaten family style at the school.

On May 17, the students were putting the finishing touches on a Cajun-infused chicken Alfredo, with a rich, creamy dairy-free cauliflower sauce replacing the traditional cream-and-parmesan cheese mixture.

This healthy take on a normally heavy dish is the model upon which Smith bases his business, and which he tries to impart to the students during the classes.

The week before, the students simply baked chocolate chip cookies, which Smith laughingly stressed he did not endorse.

In addition to culinary lessons, students also get primers on such kitchen essentials as knife safety.

Smith donates the ingredients and time, costing the school nothing for the meal. But Halbig is hoping to find a way to expand it.

“My vision and dream is that we do this every day,” she said.

Student Kimberly Lopez was on the prep team, responsible for chopping the pile of fresh vegetables that went in to the dish.

“I like learning new recipes and taking them home to feed my family,” she said.

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