Who would expect a Food Network competitive cooking show to educate, inspire and tug at your heart in a brief half hour episode? "Chopped" outdid itself with its incredible "school lunch lady" episode.
Four east coast school cafeteria chefs competed on an episode of Food Network's competitive cooking series "Chopped," with all coming out as big winners. The half-hour show covered nutrition for everyone, not just kids, taste, high-level molecular gastronomy (one chef used Ultratex to thicken her sauce), and the world of today's school cafeteria -- a very different world from the one most of us grew up making fun of or being nauseated by.
Many have commented on how touching the show was. Each of the so-called "lunch ladies" had such a warm, caring personality -- high contrast to the majority of chefs on the competitive cooking shows. From the first moments of the appetizer course, they were helping and supporting each other in the kitchen. All had kind, supportive statements to make about each others' cooking and ideas. They were sincerely impressed and it was truly charming and inspirational to see them express appreciation, not criticism, of each others' efforts.
And these were no slouch efforts, either. I don't watch "Chopped" all the time, but I've seen enough episodes to know that the four school cafeteria chefs could have competed successfully against "regular" chefs at any time, in any other show. The foods presented by the four competitors were beautiful, creative, for the most part, healthy, and from the judges' sincere reactions, tasty as well.
When it came time for the main course, I was a little surprised to see that two of the three remaining chefs were unfamiliar with Quinoa. Quinoa is a yummy, healthy grain-like product that I know kids would like. It isn't ultra-inexpensive, but it could add good nutrition to school meals and be a nice substitute for rice or pasta. Unfortunately, in this round, the one chef who did serve quinoa at her school got chopped.
The lady I was most rooting for did win. Probably the warmest-hearted school cafeteria chef ever, Cheryl Barbara from New Haven, Connecticut, won the competition. I am sure there were no dry eyes in the Chopped studio, and I was teary-eyed myself when Cheryl came out on top. All of the cafeteria chefs were exceptional, but Cheryl radiated love and caring in every piece of food she placed on every plate, and in all of her movements, expressions and the things she said.
The Chopped judges discussed the new government nutrition guidelines, with the divided plate graphic for fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. While many have argued about this graphic, there's no question that over half the plate shows fruits and vegetables, and only 1/4 of the plate has grains -- and if they are whole grains, few would argue that would represent an unhealthy meal. The plate is hilarious to me, because this is of course the way I grew up eating, have always eaten by preference, and will continue to eat as long as these foods are available.
I thought about what the school cafeteria chefs are teaching our children. If they are like these four Chopped competitors, they are teaching something more than just good nutrition, and encouraging children to try new, healthy foods. I think they are teaching kindness and caring. I have seen what many school cafeteria chefs have to work with. Especially if the cafeteria receives government commodities or foods ordered on behalf of the school lunch program, the cafeteria chefs can receive boxes of frozen, dried, pre-prepared staples or main dishes that aren't very nutritious or appetizing. All of the chefs featured on Chopped were cooking with fresh foods, and some even had school gardens or agriculture programs that were providing really fresh foods such as eggs and produce. It takes an unbelievable amount of caring and creativity to put together good meals out of the inexpensive materials most school cafeteria chefs have to work with. To establish food service with fresh produce, protein and grains, cooked with a high level of quality such as these four chefs presented is an heroic effort. All of these foods were served up with love for the children and genuine caring about their nutrition and well-being.
If I were a little one these days, I would give all of the school cafeteria chefs the biggest hug ever -- and especially Cheryl Barbara, the winner, who packed backpacks with nutritious food for the weekend for kids she knew wouldn't get good meals at home.
It isn't about quantity of food, it's about nutrition. As we see today, the obesity epidemic is rising because of the lack of good quality, nutritious food that will fill kids' stomachs with appropriate sized portions and variety. The epidemic is directly related to the availability of cheap fast food and cheap prepared foods. Even the quick, inexpensive foods that parents on low incomes would turn to will be fattening if eaten to excess (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for example). This epidemic isn't about soda or candy, except that these items are addictive, relatively inexpensive, and considered "staples" in many homes. We will not solve the obesity epidemic or help genuinely hungry children by banning soda and candy in schools, by lecturing or hectoring parents, or be telling others what to do.
I think we'd go a long way to solve the problem by paying school cafeteria chefs more, and helping them to get training and education to cook the way the Chopped "Lunch Ladies" do. Children will ask for the tasty, nutritious foods they eat at school. Instead of making fun of their school lunches and throwing all their vegetables and fruits away, the kids will eat nutritious, attractive meals and develop a palate for healthy food. They can develop a palate for good food - they do not have to be doomed to a lifetime of Doritos, Mountain Dew Code Red, Big Macs, Nuggets and Ranch, and Snickers.
The sweetheart school cafeteria chefs touched my heart in so many ways. I knew some of their quiet statements were true. I think Cheryl mentioned that they were not allowed into the teacher's lounge, and each competitor mentioned they were not paid very much. Arlene Leggio, one of the other chefs, said that it would take her a whole year to earn the $10,000 Chopped prize.
These were truly the kindest, most gifted chefs ever, ideal to work with children. What a great way to dispel the stereotype of the "school lunch lady" as an uncaring, lazy, hostile person serving "slop" (in Cheryl's words) to little kids, and demanding that they "like it."