Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Portland School Lunch Chef Invited to the White House

by Katherine Cook

Posted on May 28, 2010 at 7:16 PM

Updated Sunday, May 30 at 7:51 AM

Lunchtime at Abernethy Elementary School in Southeast Portland, does not smell like tater tots. Or chicken nuggets for that matter, and students have Chef Nicole Hoffmann to thank for that.

Every day, Hoffmann, a graduate of Western Culinary Institute, prepares fresh, USDA-approved meals for 400 kids. On Friday, it was chicken Panang curry with brown rice, or pita bread and hummus. And for those with a less adventurous palette, there is always home-made PB&J on wheat bread.

"The curry dish I imagine won't interest all the kids because it's yellow," said Hoffmann. "But a lot of them will try it and they'll be like 'hmm, that's actually okay!'"

Helping kids in that way is why she chose to work at Abernethy over a four-star restaurant.

"I've had kids clamor for broccoli," she said.

Similar food revolutions have been cultivated in Abernethy's garden. There, kids spend hours growing, harvesting and learning about the vegetables Hoffmann prepares.

"The full-circle piece becomes really evident when we have kids excited about rutabagas and Brussels sprouts," said Hoffman. "The last time we served fresh Brussels sprouts, we ran out."

Friday's curry dish made a similar splash with those who tried it.

"This stuff is so good!" shouted one second-grader.

"A little spicy but real good!" Exclaimed another.

As for their thoughts on Chef Nicole? "She rocks, and she's going to the White House!"

Hoffman was invited to help Michelle Obama kick off her "Chefs Move to Schools" program, which partners professional chefs with schools to help them develop their lunch menus. Kind of like what Hoffmann does every day.

"I think it will be an amazing experience," said Hoffman. "I'm really excited that it feels like there's momentum towards making changes in school lunch programs, nationally."

Parents are also excited, especially Leslie Carlson who has three kids at Abernethy.

"I really didn't think we could break kids addiction of junk food," said Carlson, citing a recent trip to the grocery store as proof to the contrary.

"My 10-year-old son said, 'mom, I really want you to buy me something today," and I thought he would ask for something sugary or pop," recalled Carlson. "Then he said, 'I really want to have Brussels sprouts for dinner tonight.' I was so shocked, I just stood there in the produce section and said, 'OK!"

Many recipes Hoffmann creates are adopted by other schools in the Portland Public School District. While Hoffmann was honored to be invited to the White House, she said at the end of the day, there's no greater compliment then 400 happily nourished kids.

"When the trays come back empty, it's pretty satisfying," she said.