Table 20 chef Chris Lyons treated the teenagers Friday to a special chef-created school lunch of crispy-baked cod, macaroni and cheese with caramelized onions, charred broccoli and cinnamon apple crisp, and Bartow County School Nutrition Director Pam Blakeney invited a group of school officials, including Superintendent Dr. John
Harper and board members Anna Sullivan, Davis Nelson and Chairman John Howard, to join them for the tasting.
“There’s a movement called Chef-to-School, and that’s kind of part of it,” Blakeney said, noting she and her staff had eaten at Table 20 and liked the food. “It promotes to kids that we are trying to do some kind of nicer menu on a limited budget. It’s good for the chef, too, because he sees this is what you’ve got to work with, and you’ve got to bring it down to this level. So, it works out for both.”
Lyons, who opened the Cartersville restaurant with his wife, Allie, in September 2016, was eager to cook for the students.
“They approached me at the restaurant one day, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to give back to the students and help out and offer my creative side [to] give the students something different than the everyday, usual food that they get,” the Cartersville resident said, adding it took about two months to get everything worked out. “It’s important to interact and give back to the community. I have a 3-year-old daughter [Navaeh], and one day, it would be nice to see more chefs in towns and cities across the country that help out the school systems. That’s where it all starts.”
The chef said he went to Cass last Tuesday afternoon to meet the nutrition staff and spent three or four hours “[doing] a demo of the recipes that I had prepared for today [Friday].”
“Using cod, it’s not a very fishy fish,” he said. “Baking it keeps it healthier, and it does have good flavor. So, I wanted to go that route. Also, to introduce a different fish to these kids so they can at least try it. Mac and cheese, because what kid doesn’t like mac and cheese? Using fresh ingredients, nothing processed. The charred broccoli, because at my restaurant, Table 20, we char it, and it’s a huge hit. It gives a nice depth of flavor, so I figured kids would like that. And the apple crisp, you know, it’s fall. It’s getting chilly out. It’s got good flavor, and I definitely guarantee the kids will like it.”
Lyons’ dishes seemed to be a hit with the majority of the diners who tried them.
“I just actually went back there to see how everything was going on the line, and they told me that one kid came up and got three plates, so he came back for two more and gave it two thumbs up,” the chef said. “Another person said that the dessert was the best they’ve ever had at this school. In a quick couple of minutes, that’s good feedback, so I’ll take it. Not 100 percent of everybody is going to enjoy it, but you know what? I think a majority of kids will, and it introduced them to something new.”
Blakeney said the adult guests definitely enjoyed the food, as did a couple of culinary students who helped prepare the 480 to 500 lunches.
Sophomore Stefani Collins, one of the culinary students, said she liked most of the dishes.
“I’m not a fan of fish,” said the 16-year-old, who helped make the macaroni and cheese. “I didn’t eat the fish, but everything else was absolutely amazing. The macaroni and cheese was really good. It had a lot of flavor, and it’s not normal school food, so it’s absolutely great.”
“I thought the food was good,” Harper said. “I love broccoli. The fish was good. I’d liked to have had more of it. I thought it was excellent for the staff to bring [Lyons] in and network with him and especially invite us over because we don’t get this kind of invite very often.”
Blakeney said she thought the event had “gone great.”
“[Lyons has] been great to work with, loves the staff,” she said. “The staff loves him. He was real excited about our kitchen. He loves the equipment. Restaurants don’t necessarily cook with that industrial size in that short amount of time. They can cook a lot of meals, but they’re not serving in just a two-hour window like we are. I think it was good for him, too. I believe he’s really enjoyed it.”
The chef said his first experience of cooking for a school was “really nice.”
“Everybody here was really awesome, a fun group of ladies, really receptive, and made it super-easy for us,” he said. “I definitely recommend it to other restaurateurs, chefs, whoever, to help out.”
He also said it’s “definitely, absolutely” something he wants to do again.
“I’d like to think this is the first of many to come,” he said. “We’ll do more and get better, make it bigger. The first time you do it, you don’t know what you’re walking into. You’re trying to get comfortable with certain areas of the kitchen and what food you can actually utilize, but I got a grasp on it, and from here on out, we can get better.”
Harper thinks a partnership between chefs and local schools is beneficial for both.
“I thought it was an excellent opportunity for us to network with a local restaurant, to come out and expose our children to what’s really out there locally,” he said. “I met the owner, and he seems to really enjoy being here. Then he says, ‘Whatever I can do to give back, let me know.’”
Stefani, who plans to open her own restaurant someday, enjoyed having Lyons at her school.
“The chef, that was the most fun part because I get to learn from someone who’s really experienced in the culinary world,” she said.
Blakeney said the dishes may go on some of the school menus in the future.
“Any time we try something like that, we try it to see how the kids will accept it,” she said. “Now fish is kind of an odd thing, and that’s why we picked it because it’s something that kids don’t necessarily select. We were trying to get something to promote a healthy alternative and something that the kids aren’t used to seeing in the school lunchroom.”
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