Chalk It Up to Character: Survey Results Show Chefs Want to Teach

by Jessica Dukes
August 2011

Michelle Obama, Sam Kass, and kids at the launch of Chefs Move to Schools at the White House, May 2010

When we recently partnered with the School Nutrition Association (SNA) to support Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, it only partly had to do with our enduring crush on the First Lady.

Admittedly, she had us at, “Hello, chefs.”  But what really lit our pilot light back in May of 2010 was Ms. Obama’s call for kitchen-folk to lend a hand in guiding America’s youth toward a healthier future. We know that chefs are a hardworking, committed, and passionate bunch, and it doesn’t take a leap of faith to imagine their tough, resilient, asbestos-proofed hands steering us away from an epidemic in unhealthy food choices. Who better than chefs to push kids toward roast chicken and braised kale and away from disposable food containers?

Chef Todd Gray inspects his sous chefs’ work

In support of Barack’s better half and the idea that kids deserve an alternative to refined sugar and monounsaturated fats, we wanted feedback from our readers on how best to get chefs into schools. And as bait (or a reward for charitable behavior), survey participants were automatically entered to win the complete (ultra-complete, in all its 43 pounds), six-volume edition of Modernist Cuisine by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, Chef Chris Young, and Chef Maxime Bilet, provided by Winston Industries. Stay tuned on Twitter for the announcement of our winner!

Chefs at the Chalkboard (and the Lunchline)

Chefs are an active bunch and apparently not just behind the line (or carousing after work). Of our respondents, 48 percent already volunteer, whether by lending their culinary support at church or giving time to the local soup kitchen and to nonprofit charities like Share Our Strength, Recipe for Success, Meals on Wheels, and yes, Chefs Move to Schools. Charitable activity has its rewards, even professionally, but in an industry when 16-hour days are the norm, we’re pleased to see the trend in community involvement still going strong.

Chefs Tom Colicchio and Paul Kahan school kids on trimming cauliflower

Of those polled, 73 percent of chefs see themselves front and center in schools giving hands-on demonstrations, preferring to strut their stuff in lieu of lecturing or leading other forms of classroom instruction. Most respondents indicate that they are better prepared to share their time during the school day, rather than after school hours, when many restaurant professionals are on active duty.

Many survey takers call for fundamental changes in school lunches, and 89 percent of those surveyed express an interest in working with the school foodservice program. Among the throng of voices, there is an audible cry for locavorism in the cafeteria. Brainstorming new avenues of nutritional advancement, some suggest reorganizing school curriculums, making The Omnivore’s Dilemma required reading, or incorporating food awareness lessons into subjects like arithmetic and chemistry.

Field Trip! Beyond the Classroom

Chef Marcus Samuelsson and kids

Chefs aren’t limiting themselves to the four walls of the classroom; 65 percent of the culinary professionals who responded say that they are interested in advocacy efforts on government food policy. And 92 percent of chefs like the idea of teaching nutrition-based cooking to parents as part of a school-outreach program.

The largest majority of chef respondents want to lead “know your farmer” workshops. And a whopping 99 percent of those polled feel that farmers and kids are a natural fit, advocating for gardening classes, participation with local livestock farms, and lessons on seasonality. Chefs with the adventurous spirit even propose leading foraging expeditions.

Chefs Michael Nischan, Paul Kahan, and crew

We may have already known that chefs love farmers and seasonality and communicating their passion for food, but we are inspired nonetheless by their unequivocally high level of enthusiasm for nutritional education in schools. Faced with the plethora of volunteering options, one chef sums up an attitude that many share: “I would love to do all of these things and will probably look into it after doing this survey.”

Here’s hoping that the eager survey-taker mentioned above makes the time to give back (you know who you are!), and that Michelle (sigh!) gets her wish, the number of chefs in schools continues to grow, and kids benefit with healthier choices and a stronger foundation in food awareness. Class charcuterie project, anyone?