By Scott Scanlon
Jackie Frost is becoming a rock star in the field of Buffalo school cafeteria food.
How else can you explain students clamoring for cauliflower and veggie fries?
Frost, 34, a Grand Rapids, Mich., native and former pastry chef in some of the swankiest restaurants in Washington, D.C., moved to Buffalo about six years ago after she met her husband, Elliot, a Buffalo native, at Zaytinya, a popular Turkish restaurant where Jackie worked.
She spent her early years in Western New York at city bakeries and teaching cooking classes. She became head chef about three years ago at Westminster Community Charter School on the East Side.
Frost recently took a job with Personal Touch Food Service – which runs dining facilities in several area schools and businesses – as a healthy chef consultant. She has spent the last several weeks starting to revamp the menu at Nardin Academy.
Q. How have you liked Buffalo?
A. We bought an old Victorian downtown, we’re fixing it up. I love it here. It’s a lot like my hometown, only it has professional sports teams.
Q. Talk about your work at Westminster.
A. We did a complete conversion from processed foods to almost entirely from scratch, which is almost unheard-of in school food.
Q. What was it like when you got there?
A. Everything came out of a box. The only real skill you needed was a box cutter and dumping stuff on a tray.
That conversion was interesting just getting the children of the school – it was a Pre-K through eighth [grade] school – just getting them used to seeing fresh food for the first time. A lot of them had never seen a fresh green bean; they had only seen canned green beans. We made some of our own breads and got the children used to the way homemade stuff looks. We would cut up and bread our own chickens, so not all of our chicken nuggets were the same size. So it was those kinds of growing pains, as well as learning what kids like to eat.
We had some real successes. Kids love roasted cauliflower, which was a real surprise. We would blast it in the oven till it was crispy. The little kids didn’t know what it was. They called it white broccoli …
We would give the kids a fresh, tossed spinach salad every week and at first kids were like, ‘No, I am not taking this.’ But we continued every single week and, after three years, the kids are like, ‘When’s the salad this week?’
It took the kids awhile, but the staff fortunately was on our side. They were buying the lunches and talking up the lunches, and I feel like we won the kids over. Not that we had to wear them down, just show them again and again this from-scratch cooked food.
There was no fryer there so we oven-roasted almost all of our vegetables. That was kind of the idea. That was one less battle we had to fight. I’ve heard horror stories about taking a fryer out of a school and they just revolt. So we roasted, we braised a lot of our food. … We did everything right. We would make our own chicken stocks. … we utilized everything.
Q. What were some of the other things that the kids liked to eat?
A. We had pretty good success with what we called veggie fries, which was roasted carrot, turnip and rutabaga, which is not something the kids were familiar with at all. It was these orange, yellow and white fries. We had one of those big fry cutter presses and we would press them all with olive oil, salt, pepper and blast them in a really hot oven and they got crispy and brown. And when you cook something like that, it brings out all the natural sugars and the natural sweetness. It was a happy surprise. The kids were down with the veggie fries.
Q. What about drinks?
A. Our big thing was just to eliminate chocolate milk, and we had a smoothie bar a couple times a week, or sold al a carte to students, with fresh fruit and yogurt.
Q. Talk about Personal Touch.
A. They have schools out in the suburbs, they have schools in the city, they have high schools, they have a huge range of kids that they’re feeding and they had this vision of improving their food, bringing from-scratch techniques and healthy techniques to the schools that they work for and that’s why they brought me in.
They want to start moving away as a company from doing the processed foods.
Q. What are you doing at Nardin?
A. We’re trying to slowly incorporate more from-scratch food … doing fresh soups every day, fresh vegetables, and I’m trying to introduce some of the really delicious vegetables that are out there but unusual in schools: roasted butternut squash and braised kale, things like that. The reaction has been better than I was expecting. I also did the roasted cauliflower [last] week and it was a very, very positive reaction, so it wasn’t just a one-school thing.
Q. What does doing away with processed food, and cooking from scratch, do to the bottom line?
A. It raises the cost, not necessarily because of the food but because of the labor. It takes longer to cook from scratch. … It depends on a school’s priorities. Do they want to allocate more resources to give the kids a better product? Budgets in schools are razor-thin, which is why a lot of schools haven’t made the conversion yet. Those who have … it’s important to them.