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Chefs to Schools Challenge


Chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 with the Pittsboro Elementary Lunch Staff, Jenny & Eliza.

We began a new program in 2011, in partnership with the Chatham County School System (17 schools, 8000 kids), Briar Chapel and 3 star studded Chefs! We called it Chef Challenge, and the idea was to bring chefs into the local school system, to begin the process of revolutionizing school lunches, making them healthier, incorporating more fresh produce and healthful foods into the menus, and using more local food in the lunches.

Chefs were challenged to work with students to develop delicious lunch menus that took advantage of food from local farms that would be easy for cafeteria staff to produce within a low budget. Then the school cafeterias cooked up the new menus alongside kid’s longtime favorites, chicken nuggets, and asked kids to vote on which dish they preferred. Turns out, kids voted overwhelmingly for the fresh meals!

In the first year, Chef Challenge turned out better than expected with 3 days of new menus, increased fresh produce and 1000 more lunches consumed per day. In 2012 we collaborated with more organizations and worked on training cafeteria staff on knife skills (because they had been really only using canned and pre-cut foods), to help in the preparation of fresh produce. We also started including parents and working on related curricula for the teachers.

Where are we now?
After three great years of Chef Challenge, we switched it up a bit, by bringing in Cafeteria Man, Tony Geraci, from Memphis Tennessee.

Learn more about the school lunch revolutionary we brought to North Carolina in 2013, and the expert panel we’ve put together to tackle this ongoing work, or read on below to learn more about where the Chef Challenge idea came from and what we accomplished in two years of carrying it out. Contact us if you have ideas or would like to get involved!


Chef Jimmy Reale with the Northwood lunch staff.

The Chef Challenge idea…
We were right in the middle of the craziness of our fourth annual Pepper Festival when our friends at Briar Chapel told us about the conversations they had been having about food with Chatham County Schools.

What could be a bigger opportunity to promote local food, health and nutrition than the school lunch? We are hearing more and more these days about the worldwide epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes. School lunches are the perfect place to make big impact.

When we were invited to join the discussions, we immediately jumped in. We have a soft spot for Chatham County Schools anyway, since our first ever project was the installation of solar hot water panels at the Moncure School.

What emerged was called The Chatham County Chef Challenge, in which we introduced three celebrity chefs to the ingredients, facilities, and nutritional guidelines of the iconic school lunch. Debbie McKenzie, the Child Nutrition Director, led the charge and organized the different school lunch teams. It was her job to juggle getting the most nutrition in the lunches and keeping the budget of $1.00 per child.


Planning meeting at the Belted Goat at Fearrington.

Three Chefs volunteered their time and expertise: Chef Colin Bedford of the Fearrington House Restaurant (North Carolina’s only official Five Star), Chef Jimmy Reale of the Crossroads Restaurant at Carolina Inn, (four star and four diamond restaurant), and Chef Gregg Hamm of the Natural Chefs Culinary Program at Central Carolina Community College, (first in the country community college that offers a wholistic, sustainability culinary program). They all have quality and local food in common. I also don’t envy their jobs. Two have children and one does not….it will be interesting to see what they come up with!

Their challenge was to develop some recipes and techniques to increase the amount of vegetables on the menu, and to increase awareness about the lunch program. The menu needed to be quick and easy so that the lunch ladies can replicate the menu. We took them to visit Northwood High School, and the Moncure School, and the brand new Pollard Middle School to give them a taste of what they would be working with. There was a lot of enthusiasm from the school lunch teams.


Chef Colin Bedford and Chef Jimmy Reale with the Moncure lunch staff.

The Chef Challenge was lots of fun. It gave us a chance to learn about some of the myths and realities from behind the counter of our country’s largest food service organization. And it gave Chatham County Schools some exposure to our mission of local food and sustainability.

Read our updates from the first year of our Chef Challenge below!

First Day! Chef Hamm & Taylor against Chix Nuggets!
It takes a county…Monday, April 11, 2011

The first day of the Chatham County Schools Chef Challenge is finally here and by all accounts was a huge success. We went to the newly opened state of the art middle school, Margaret Pollard to see how the first Chef’s dish was received. Pollard is named after our wonderful community activist and county commissioner, Margaret who passed away in 2009, she would have been so proud to see the cafeteria today.

Today’s menu was created by Chef Gregg Hamm, and Kelly Taylor of the Natural Chef Culinary Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. Gregg and Kelly trained the lunch managers on how to make a 3 cheese pasta dish full of nutritious vegetables, and a fresh salad. For dessert, the offer was strawberries and bananas drizzled with chocolate sauce. The menu was easy for the lunch teams to create and abided by the USDA requirements for the school lunch program. Both Gregg and Kelly were on hand today to help and also watch as the 500 plus kids piled into the cafeteria.

We were all nervous as the competition was tough: chicken nuggets. They are one of the kid’s all time favorite lunches. The first few kids picked the nuggets. Then a few kids picked the 3 cheese pasta lunch. Then we watched as the line to get the pasta lunch wrapped around the cafeteria which had never happened before. Usually, the line goes fast while the kids grab plastic wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other fast options. The children chose the pasta dish over their beloved chicken nuggets 4 to 1!

The school had printed up little surveys for the children asking them 4 questions: How does the lunch taste, look, smell and would you want to see this again on the menu. Over 80% gave it all GOOD. A few said it smelled bad (parmesan has a strong smell), looked bad and would not want to see it again. The best part was seeing the kids smile, they came up and thanked us and the Chefs for the lunch. Most were exuberant over the new menu and even cheered as Chef Gregg gave a quick announcement about the lunch.

Superintendent Logan and Susan Little, Chief Operating Officer were on hand to see the roll out of the project. And they enjoyed some lunch of course. Debbie McKenzie, Director of Nutrition, said there were some changes that had to be made to pull this event off. Distributing the fresh vegetables for this week was a challenge. They have one person that delivers and he had a huge amount of produce to get to 17 different schools so they would be ready.

Tomorrow’s menu is from Chef Colin Bedford from Fearrington House. He’ll be up against nachos. Wednesday is Chef Jimmy Reale from Carolina Inn and he’ll be competing with pizza.


We are so thankful to Briar Chapel for the organization and logistics, to the restaurants and Chefs and to CCCC for the use of their kitchen on training day. We are also thankful to the school administration and staff for their flexibility. We’ll see where this takes us on increasing our kid’s nutrition. I bet they all become A students and reach their highest potential.

Training Day!

Last Wednesday, March 30th we gathered the 17 lunch Managers of each Chatham County School Cafeteria at the beautiful teaching kitchen of CCCC’s Natural Chef Culinary Program. It was the perfect space for the Chefs to spread out and teach the menus they have spent weeks creating. The Managers will go back to their kitchens and cook these dishes on April 11, 12 and 13th for all of the county school children.

We began with Chef Colin Bedford of 5 diamond rated Fearrington House. Can I just say that Colin is quite the personality? Very tall, booming voice with an exceptionally charming english accent. Any type of trepidation that we thought the managers may have about this project melted away as they were entertained, laughing, tasting and learning about the new dishes he created for the children of Chatham County. The Managers are of course the experts in feeding hundreds of children in a short period of time. They know what kids will and will not eat. They even mentioned packaging makes a difference. If you put a healthy meal in it’s own container rather than scooping it out of a pan, it makes a huge difference. They’ll gobble it down. Colin cooked up his dishes and we all tasted, made remarks and the managers along with Nutrition Director Debbie McKenzie were trouble shooting. It’s Debbie’s job to make sure the USDA guidelines are being met and she spent many hours on breaking down the nutrition data for each Chef’s menu. The school kitchens do not have all of the cooking equipment and seemingly simple items. Improvisation will be a big part of making the Chef Challenge a success on April 11, 12 and 13th which is showtime!


Next we brought in Chef Kelly Taylor and Chef Gregg Hamm who are collaborating on the dishes. They run the Natural Chef Culinary Program at CCCC, the first of it’s kind in the country. They train culinary professionals on curriculum that focuses on local, seasonal food, holistic nutrition and partners with the Sustainable Agriculture program that is also the best in the country. Kelley and Gregg have the added advantage of institutional cooking. They know that feeding 8,000 kids a day is no easy feat and worked on streamlining their dishes while sneaking in added nutrition. Again, the lunch managers enjoyed their work and made suggestions on how to roll this out in April.

Our last Chef is Jimmy Reale of Carolina Crossroads Restaurant located in the historical and beautiful Carolina Inn. Jimmy’s advantage besides being a wonderful and down to earth chef is that he has two small children and he knows exactly what they will and will not eat. His dish included orange zest and yummy grilled chicken along with an easy to make fruit parfait. Jimmy showed some easy shortcuts and different ways of making carrots and green beans taste delicious.


Shannon McSwiney of Briar Chapel, Beth McCullough of Chatham County Schools and myself were busy documenting the day and of course eating a lot. We are excitedly anticipating the upcoming April 11, 12 and 13th challenge coming up where the kids will be the final judges!

Chef Interviews:

As we continue our Chatham County Schools Chef Challenge, we offered the children of Chatham County the opportunity to go visit the Chefs in their environment and see what it is like and to ask questions about what it’s like to be a Chef. The kids that participated either were very interested in becoming a Chef or had a big interest in nutrition.

On Saturday, March 19th, we visited the beautiful Carolina Inn in downtown Chapel Hill. Chef Jimmy’s Sous Chef Jeff and General Manager were on hand to host us that day. We learned that they sometimes have 12 weddings a WEEKEND. Wow. They work all weekends, nights and holidays and don’t think twice. The kids wanted to know what they liked about his job and he loved working with Chef Jimmy, being creative and the fast pace of the job. He pointed out that it was a team effort and one of the most important jobs was the dishwasher who rarely gets any limelight!


Sage Corzine thought it was cool to visit and see a working kitchen. She wants to open her own restaurant one day. Zafer Estill liked the cookies that Chef Jeff gave everyone.

The next interview was on a cold rainy day and Fearrington House was getting ready for weddings! Chef Colin was very generous with his time as he sat in the parlour and answered all questions. Noah is an aspiring Chef and figuring out if he should go to college and then culinary school or just culinary school. Colin was done with his school and culinary school in England and started running a restaurant in Canada at a very early age. Questions were everything from what’s your favorite food to what do you need to be good at in order to be a Chef. Colin likes sausage and brussel sprouts. He’s inspired by the seasons and creates new dishes when fruits and vegetables are coming out of the ground. He’s passionate about his work and also emphasizes the importance of the team including the dishwashers. The kids went on a tour of the kitchen and finished the visit by decorating cookies and cupcakes.

Claudi Viveros, Chatham County parent emailed later: “Noah and I wanted to thank you for creating a great opportunity for us to meet Colin, understand the goal of the Chatham Chef Challenge, learn more about the Abundance Foundation. Noah talked about his experience the whole remainder of the weekend with the rest of our family and gave me several hugs throughout the weekend thanking me for taking him to have this experience.”

That’s what this project is all about! We thank the Chefs and staff for their time and to the parents and kids for coming out.