When I reminisce on school lunches, I remember coming to a new school and my peers making fun of my eggplant and meatball sandwich. We had moved from St. Louis to middle Tennessee, and I was a stranger in a strange land. My Sicilian father did most of the cooking, and it was very different from southern cuisine. What I remember being offered at school was mostly out of a can or fried to death. I was relieved to bring familiar food from home.
When I came to Rivermont last year, I had the nice surprise of delicious and nutritious food offerings. And I have come to appreciate that fact even more as we embrace the new Residential International Program. Teenagers, far from home, naturally get homesick and feel out of whack because so much is new and strange. What helps is to be able to have meals of familiar foods and consideration for cultural eating customs. The hearth is the heart of every home, and we are that home away from home for our students from China, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Fortunately, we have a food service program, lead by Chef Marc Studer, that works hard to attend to the dietary needs of our students, as well as offering extraordinary American cuisine to familiarize them with our national palate. It’s not just hamburgers, French fries and pizza coming out of that kitchen.
Chef Marc talks with the students to learn what they want to eat and what they can’t eat. Being a restaurant professional, he wants his dining patrons to be happy, and he understands that menus need to be in tune with the diners. His love of food and people make him generous in attention and effort. When our Chinese students asked for Hot Pot, a favorite dish from Northern China, while he had never heard of it, Chef Marc gathered the ingredients and opened his kitchen so that the students could prepare a supper, brand new to him. Hot Pot is not simply a meal but a whole social event. As one dines, they drop into a pot of simmering soup, any number of items from a buffet of choices: thinly sliced beef and lamb, seafood, vegetables, tofu, bamboo, meatballs, straw mushrooms. Everyone builds a custom bowl of goodness. We spent two hours with dinner that night sharing cooking, conversation, and even karaoke.
Then there are the dietary customs ranging from vegetarian to Halal and Whole30 or gluten-free. Being a “cooking from scratch” kitchen, Chef does his best to accommodate all of these. At any meal, you will find at least three dietary options and often four or five. This is a school where kids look forward to meals.
Please come share a meal sometime and say hi to the chef and his crew. It is truly an amazing food service, attending to nutritional needs with a big heart.