Can Marc Vetri Save School Lunch?

Goodbye, rubbery nuggets, plastic trays and long cafeteria lines. The city’s top chef and his team want to turn the midday meal on its head.

 

TO UNDERSTAND HOW PARTNERS MARC VETRI, JEFF BENJAMIN and Jeff Michaud plan to revolutionize America’s school cafeterias, you must first understand the allure of the most special table at Osteria, their splendid Italian ristorante on North Broad Street.

To find the table, you have to pass the bar, hang a right down a busy corridor, then turn left just before you hit the restrooms. Step past some boxes and you’re in a windowless white-walled kitchen with a steel sink on one side and metal shelves on the others, neatly stacked with utensils, linens and gleaming pots.

In the center of this unglamorous space sits an enormous butcher-block slab, counter-height, surrounded by 14 bar stools. During the day, it’s a bustling food-prep spot; at night, customers sup here on the result of all that chopping and grinding. Fresh flowers, piped-in Italian tunes and winking candles help soften the room’s industrial edges, but it will never be as chic as Osteria’s main dining space, as elegant as its wine room, or as lovely as its glassed-in patio.

So why do loyal customers reserve this spot—called, simply, the Kitchen Table—weeks in advance for private parties?

Because eating at the Kitchen Table feels like eating at home, if eating at home were perfect.

Before the meal, either Vetri or Michaud will pop by to discuss the feast they’ve readied. It’s one thing to dig into superbly roasted quail, rabbit or venison; it’s quite another to first have the chef explain why he seasoned it with treviso, or sage, or cranberry. As for etiquette, you dine family-style at the Kitchen Table, passing plates and bowls with happy abandon. You love what’s on your fork? Have more! Not to your liking? Don’t fret—a different platter is making the rounds. The atmosphere is both comforting and adventurous, and conversation flows as everyone relaxes into an experience that feels like an idealized version of the family dinner.

Sounds wonderful, right? But what does this have to do with kids’ lunches?

To find out, take a one-block stroll up North Broad Street from Osteria to the People for People Charter School, where school leaders are about to adopt, wholesale, the Kitchen Table method of delicious, dignified meal delivery—including the announcement from a chef about what’s on the day’s menu. Or drive a few miles northwest to the Wissahickon Charter School, whose lunch line has been traded for family-­style eating, also à la Osteria’s Kitchen Table. Or, this summer, stop by Girard College in North Philly, where in the past two years the Kitchen Table philosophy has literally transformed a summer-­camp program for low-income kids.

If Vetri, Benjamin and Michaud have their way, over the next five years many more regional school cafeterias and camp canteens will adopt the Kitchen Table way of school-lunch eating, which the men have christened the “Eatiquette” program. And within a decade, they hope, Eatiquette will be a national passion. Not just because these culinary visionaries believe children deserve to eat in a way that nourishes body and spirit. But because we all know the results of a society in which they don’t.

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