It's noon at the The Ellis School in Shadyside. We are in Alumnae Hall, handsomely designed with a vaulted ceiling and soft lighting. There's a piano and a fireplace. The colors are warm and inviting, the chairs are bentwood, and floor-to-ceiling windows face a tree-shaded grassy area. This is the school cafeteria.
Girls, girls, lots of girls are streaming in. Voices are raised, faces are smiling, it's time for lunch, and the aromas are tempting. I pick up a tray and join them.
At the hot bar, the choice is between chicken breast with a knob of ramp butter or miso-glazed salmon with sprouts and wilted radishes. The vegetable of the day is steamed bok choy with sesame. Many girls heap their plates high at the salad bar, and some choose a made-to-order sandwich or opt for one of the homemade soups of the day. A few pick a slice of pizza. Just about everyone picks up fresh whole or cut-up fruit. Girls with a sweet tooth add a packet of snickerdoodles or whole-wheat banana bread. Other days, there might be sloppy Joes made with local beef, fettucine Alfredo, New England seafood chowder, roasted beet and chevre salad and various roasted local vegetables.
Most of the girls stop to check out the samples at the Tasting Table in the middle of the room. This day it is ramps in puff pastry with cheese.
Whoa! No Jell-O, no mystery meat, no mac and cheese. And a tasting table? This certainly is not your grandma's lunch room. What's going on here?
It's not what, it's who, and the who at Ellis is chef Mark Collins.
If you are a foodie, you may remember that Mr. Collins was chef/co-owner of Le Pommier in South Side, where he served classic French cuisine. Before that, he worked with Toni Pais at Baum Vivant and Cafe Zao. After Le Pommier ended its run, Mr. Collins' wife suggested that he find a gig that would allow him to spend more time at home with the family, especially on the weekends.
He found a good fit with Metz Culinary Management, a food-service operation in tune with today's health imperatives, emphasizing local foods and natural ingredients, hormone-free milk, cage-free eggs, and a commitment to nutrition with respect for vegetarian, vegan, heart-healthy diets and lower-fat choices.
To its credit, the Metz company makes an effort to recruit chefs to head up their operations in health-care, business and educational accounts. They serve the populations at Central Catholic, St. Edmund's, Winchester Thurston, Sewickley Academy, Shady Side Academy and schools in Bethel Park and Moon.
While Mr. Collins was learning the food service ropes in his first assignment with Metz at Siemens Industries in Westmoreland County, a situation was percolating at The Ellis School.
Randie Benedict had just been named head of school. When she arrived in July 2009, she didn't like some of the things she saw. "We have both the girls and the environment to think of," she says. "One of the first things I did was to get rid of all the store-bought water. We gave everyone a new personal drink container, and we distributed water dispensers around the campus for refilling. I also wanted to improve the quality of our meals, to offer local and sustainable foods where possible. I began a search and found Metz. And that's how we met Chef Collins. He started with us at the beginning of the 2012 school year."
Consider the learning curve for Mr. Collins, going from fine dining to school lunch. The Ellis enrollment is 440 girls age 3 to grade 12. Breakfast is offered, and the girls eat in four lunch periods, grouped according to age. The youngest have familiar and straightforward food choices, with progressively more variety and adventurous food choices for the older girls.
"Last August, I was sweating bullets," said Mr. Collins. "I had to consider not only sourcing and cooking the food, but also building diversity for developing palates. I only know one way to work, and I'd just have to make it happen in this broad environment. And I did. I buy from Paragon Foods and Penn's Corner Farm Alliance with beef from Cunningham Meats. The kitchen is small, but we make as much as we can from scratch."
Another big challenge was the difference in personnel. Many restaurant workers have culinary training, but many school employees come from a different place, as in "heat and serve." Space and equipment specs differ. And some food-service purveyors "don't get it." Mr. Collins is patient when he has to explain why his school needs duck or fresh salmon.
So far, he hasn't presented in school his chefs' signature items, such as hanger steak frites with chevre-pink peppercorn butter, lamb stew with porcinis and smoked tomatoes or bouillaibase with rouille. But then, this is his first year.
He did bring in a sous chef, his assistant, and he is quick to note that he does not work with "lunch ladies." "The six people I work with are my crew," says Mr. Collins, whose official designation is food manager.
"The girls are really into fruit. We're cutting fruit all day long," says Mr. Collins, whose two daughters are in the Ellis child-care program. "And I hang my hat on vegetables. Roasted cauliflower is the favorite veg we offer. Peers are a great influence here. If one or two of the kids like something, their friends are likelier to try it, too. It's surprising to me when the girls come back for second and third helpings."
The higher quality does come with a price. A meal (entree or sandwich plus two sides) and half pint of juice or milk is $4.25, roughly double what some public-school lunches cost. (A la carte prices include $3.50 for the salad bar and $1.55 for a slice of pizza.)
What do the kids think? Emily Yaruss, 17, of Allison Park, says, "I remember the food all the way back to kindergarten. It was awful, and it was all repeats like taco day and pasta day. Now it's fun to see what's different. I don't know what's on the chicken today, but it's green and looks good. I heard it's ramp butter."
And Kayla King, 14, of Blackridge, says, "I remember all the food since I was little, too. We had pasta every day. Chicken fingers and pasta, fish and pasta, and all the food was too salty. I like the yogurt bar at breakfast. Last year we had a waffle bar."
This is a win-win situation for everyone.
Head of School Ms. Benedict agrees. "There had been some parental concern around food quality early on," she says. "And that has dropped off considerably. More girls are eating lunch at school and fewer are bringing it from home. Most important, we consider the food we serve to be part of our education."
Mr. Collins loves his job and the bonus that he can spend more time with his family. To keep his game up, he caters events for the board of trustees and special school occasions.
The girls win big-time, too. Whether he admits it or not, Mr. Collins is training the next generation of foodies.
Jamie Oliver would approve.
Marlene Parrish: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-1620. First Published May 9, 2013 4:00 AM