“Red wine vinegar for the salad dressing,” blond seven-year-old Colin announces firmly, his mini-toque printed with half and whole lemons slipping down to his eyebrows. “And balsamic and two mustards,” he says pointing to the Dijon and the tin of dried mustard.
“We’ll use pink salt,” declares 11-year-old Audrey, who minutes earlier had been guiding Colin as the two shaved long ribbons of carrots with Swiss peelers for the salad. Across the commercially approved “Jeff’s Kitchen,” two nine-year-olds are making eight pans of corn bread while pots of four-bean venison and vegetarian chili simmer on the stove and a tray of ramps for the salad roasts in the oven. Two seven-years-olds hurry around the dining room setting 90 places at the tables. Earlier, the six had helped choose the menu.
“Fifteen minutes to go. Ccccrunch time,” the children hear. At 11:30 a.m. a tide of laughter and chatter pours into the dining room as students and their teachers surge toward seats and a delicious chili, corn bread and salad lunch.
Hayground School in Bridgehampton is realizing a dream that has quietly landed it on the cutting edge of school lunches nationally. The dream involves tempting young children to respect and crave healthy food in a culture awash in processed fare and restoring the prime socializing cement of a shared table.
Four days a week students, even five- and six-year-olds, harvest crops from the private, progressive elementary school’s greenhouse, plan menus and then cook lunch for classmates and staff. Lunch has become the rich, communal core of Hayground’s day. Food is a valued part of the curriculum, with students spending a fifth of their time on it, as much as is dedicated to math. Even more revolutionary, the school went through the arduous task of getting health department approval for having kids in the kitchen, a time-consuming process that required shutting the culinary program down for nearly two years.
You hear versions of this dream from celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver. It was the utopian vision of the late restaurateur Jeff Salaway, who spent hours talking of his passion with Jonathan Snow, Hayground’s director of admissions, the art studio and gardening, after both helped found the school in 1996. Hayground’s cooking program started as a tribute to Salaway with a Chefs Dinner fund-raiser that helped build Jeff’s Kitchen at the school after his tragic death in 2001. About that time, the school received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation’s “lab school” mission.
But the mission faced stumbles four years ago. No elementary or high school on Long Island, and quite possibly no school across the land, had ever turned its kitchen over to students. Most American schools rely on warming ovens to heat processed food. Cooking classes tend to be confined to extracurricular activities or home economic classes.
Hayground had a beautiful kitchen used by professional chefs. Its staff believed it met any certification needed for children to cook in it. That assumption was shattered when an inspector from the Suffolk Department of Health arrived unannounced.
Exhaust hoods were too small. There was no barrier between kitchen and dining areas. “Children could wander into the kitchen,” the alarmed inspector exclaimed. The list ran on. Since the kitchen was exactly where Arjun Achutchan, who heads culinary arts, and Snow wanted children to be, a collaboration between Hayground and the health department brought everything up to exacting restaurant certification standards with the help of a consultant, a former inspector. Achutchan and Snow remember the moment he told them, “I wrote the law and there’s nothing about the age of people working in the kitchen.” Official approval eventually came, and Hayground quietly set a fantastic precedent: The program can now be duplicated at any school in Suffolk County.
“Kids like the idea of being professional, having a hairnet and wearing gloves and seeing the autoclave working properly on the dishwasher,” says Snow.
Achutchan adds the program is not just for the children of the wealthy. “Hayground is actually a middle-class school…a scholarship school with token full-payers. Full tuition at the school runs $21,000 per student annually, but the average tuition is $8,000 since 60 percent of students receive assistance.”
Starting With Salads
“When Arjun started the cooking program, salad was at the bottom of the list,” says Snow. “A lot of kids did not have a salad culture, had had dreadful experiences with salads.” Now, by popular student demand, some days are “NBS”: nothing but salads. On a recent Thursday, there was a Caesar salad, followed by a bowl of baby frisée, kale and chard picked that morning from the greenhouse with miso dressing, an orzo salad with tiny cubes of yellow beets and a killer potato salad; each could have been served in a good restaurant.
Seventy-eight students, ages three to 14, sit at long tables in the dining room with 12 staff members. A din of conversation and laughter fill the 2,000-square-foot room as bowls of second and third helpings of salads make the rounds. Abruptly everyone’s hand shoots up and the room falls silent as end-of-lunch announcements begin. After a few words, whistles, claps and shouts erupt. It turns out a well-known greens-disdaining nine-year-old had just eaten his first Caesar salad. He confessed he liked it. He said he was ready for more.
“He said he had never had a salad before,” says Achutchan, a mulish attitude the greens-distainer’s peers knew well. “Yesterday he told me he’d never eaten fruit. I said, ‘for real?’ He said, ‘I’ve never eaten a vegetable.’ I said ‘for real?’”
Achutchan hesitated weighing how to play his answer, finally saying, “I wish I were you. I would have so much to look forward to.” The boy shot back, “I’ve never done it and I won’t.”
“How do you get kids interested in eating healthy food? You eat it,” says Snow, a teaching veteran of 35 years who began his career in East Harlem schools. Ideally, you grow as much of it as possible, sourcing the rest locally, then teach kids how to cook it: Salaway’s dream, which Snow has shepherded for 13 years.
On the Job
The students work in mixed-aged groups taking turns every eight weeks in the kitchen and in the 960 square feet of greenhouses.
The knife question springs to mind since five-year-olds are assigned to the kitchen. “When can they use a knife?” asks Achutchan. “When they’re able. With the little ones I’ll cut vegetables down to a julienne, then they chop it from there.”
There are clear payoffs in Jeff’s Kitchen beyond the day’s menu. Achutchan, who is also a math teacher, says, “There’s an abundance of math in cooking, science in the garden, practical vocational skills, an awareness of the chemistry of growing plants, which is not learned in the abstract from a textbook. There are discussions of food safety and of the politics and economics of food.”
“We’re actually kind of a magnet for chef families,” Snow says. “Our kids are used to eating really high-quality lunch. Organic food. We don’t buy meat any more. We don’t want the hormones. When we do eat meat, it’s what parents have hunted or from Art Ludlow or Iacano. We can’t afford to buy fish, but if someone on staff catches a load of, say, bluefish, we’ll have it.”
Some argue that being in a constant hurry is the core of the problem with food in America. Snow nods, “That’s why when we go to the greenhouse we spend two minutes just sitting silently with all the plants, just appreciating the colors, the air, the stillness.” (Snow’s first experience teaching through food was in the 1980s when he took young children in the Bronx on walks to sketch plants they found in neighborhood parks and taste wild berries.) Hayground was the recipient of $6,000 from Slow Food East End’s Edible School Garden project grant to build a greenhouse, when no public school was in a position to accept it. Recently, Snow has expanded the outside gardens of herbs and edible weeds. “Our kids are adventurous eaters and foragers. Weeds like wild sorrel, dandelion, chickweed, epazote, lamb’s quarters, our kids are familiar with all of them now,” says Snow.
Hayground’s first Chefs Dinner in 2002 funded the first part of Jeff’s Kitchen. Since then, the event, supported by top New York City and East End chefs and one of the culinary highlights of the Hamptons’ high season, has become a major source of fund-raising. It brings in $150,000 to $250,000 a year through its annual cocktail party, art auction and dinner. It represents a major part of the school’s operating budget and has funded the expansion of the kitchen along with very meaningful extras like a wood-burning pizza oven and a future tractor.
Unlike past years when a cocktail party for as many as 500 guests preceded the Chefs Dinner, this year there will be no cocktail party. Instead because of a new addition to Jeff’s Kitchen there will be space to serve a greater number of guests, 150 at its August 3 sit-down dinner. Alfred Portale and Eric Ripert are among this year’s featured chefs. The event will honor chef Tom Colicchio and his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, who last year was coproducer of an eloquent documentary pastoral of hunger in America, A Place at the Table.
For Hayground’s visionaries see well beyond Jeff’s Kitchen and the school’s gardens, farmers market and summer camp; they hope to export their accomplishments if not immediately to other schools, then to parents and after-school programs.
“Parents can start their own gardens with kids,” says Snow. “It’s like sitting down and having a meal together.”