Chef Donald Hooper with Jeremy's on the Hill
Heads turn when people learn that the Julian Union School District has an acclaimed local chef preparing meals for the school district.
Yet that’s exactly what has been happening in the mountain town in east San Diego County for the past three plus years. A few years ago The Julian Union School District had a conversation with local restaurant Jeremy’s On The Hill, an acclaimed farm to table restaurant that takes advantage of the area’s rich agricultural economy. Could a local restaurant lend its expertise to create a school menu that incorporates many of the same local food providers, and serve students a delicious and unique menu? The answer was yes.
Not long after the relationship started, Chef Donald Hooper was placed in charge of the operation. Chef Donald had returned to the San Diego after years as a chef at high end resort hotels like the Ritz-Carlton in Miami. And while he has recently launched his own business apart from Jeremy’s, his relationship with the restaurant and the school district has remained. Knowing that he is part of something special and unique is a constant source of satisfaction for him. "It tickles me that we get to serve this food to our children. It’s really meaningful."
Regarding the food, Chef Donald is committed to finding as much locally-sourced food as possible. Working with local farms Wynola Flats and Down The Road Farms, as well as food distributor Sysco, Chef Donald began building menus with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Says Chef Donald, "I get a good amount [of our food] from local farms, and I work with Sysco and have been able to find a lot of products grown in CA.
The carrots on our salad this week are organic juicing carrots. The chicken we use is free range from Heartland Meats in Chula Vista. So most of the foods we use are sourced that way. There’s a little more to it than calling Sysco and saying, 'hey, can you send me some carrots.' We go through their inventory and look for organic products, nutrition and what’s going to give these children the nourishment they need.”
When asked how the foods he uses for the schools compares to what he’d use at Jeremy’s On The Hill or other restaurants, he stands behind the school district’s foods. "I use the same produce that you would see in a restaurant.
We want to give them the best available product, and because we have access to these two [local] farms, and because Sysco works with us, they’re getting food that I’ve served at a Ritz-Carlton or a Renaissance or Marriott.”
Of course Chef Donald has some different guidelines in cooking school meals, based on USDA guidelines to which he has to adhere. "As a chef I’m used to basting my meats in butter, and with the schools it’s different. All of our pasta is whole grain, and I don’t get to pick and choose.”
The menu in Julian changes every month, which allows Chef Donald to work with farms to find the freshest seasonal produce and provide students with different options year round. That doesn’t mean, however, that favorites aren’t made regularly. When students really like things, the team in Julian notices and adjusts the menu for those items. "We have days that we have to have some of the favorites. So we have days where we do a nicer version of a chicken nugget, and they’ll go nuts for it.”
The ability of the Julian Nutrition Services team and Chef Donald to listen and adapt has been key to honing in on menu items that have the greatest appeal to students. Sometimes a slight change is all that’s needed to see and item shift from limited appeal to a top seller. "It’s funny what kids like or respond to. At one point, they didn’t like the tacos we made. We do a whole wheat street taco, a super healthy version of it, and I had kids that just didn’t want it. So I did the same taco and I rolled it, and they went nuts for it!” Same ingredients. Different presentation. Different response. It’s all in a day’s work for Chef Donald and the Julian team.
Study after study shows that healthy school meals contribute to better student health, better student ability to focus in classes, as well as fewer absences. It’s also a solid value.
Chef Donald reflects on having once been told about a student who confessed that their lunch from home was little more than bread and sugar. "I had no idea that that’s what some kids have to eat until I did this program. Hopefully we can shift the perception away from what may seem easiest to do. It’s even easier and less expensive to get the school lunch than to get the bag of chips and gummy bears - that costs more than the school lunch, and your kids are going to be nourished and eat good stuff.”
It’s easy to get a sense of Chef Donald’s care for the food and the students he feeds. He knows that there is a big difference when the food he prepares ends up in students’ bellies. “For the kids who eat on a consistent basis, I know they’re getting what they need.” The students, however, aren’t the only ones benefiting from the relationship. Says Chef Donald, "I would say that the school experience, for me, has been one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done."