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.


“WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, THE KITCHEN TABLE was the center of life,” says Vetri, the James Beard Foundation honoree and founder of the local Vetri Family restaurant empire that, in addition to Osteria, includes the eponymous Vetri, Amis, and the ready-to-open Alla Spina. He’s at Osteria, attending to some last-minute paperwork before hopping an afternoon flight to Italy, where he, Benjamin and Michaud plan to taste-test their way around the Bergamo region for menu inspiration. Tall, lanky and funny, he has a relaxed demeanor that’s at odds with the crazy pace he keeps, running three restaurants a day while overseeing the birth of a fourth.

“We set the table together,” Vetri, 45, says of his childhood. “We ate together, cleared the plates together. We’d talk about our day. Sometimes we’d argue. People would storm off. Then they came back and settled it, because the kitchen table was where we worked things out. We were learning interpersonal skills and problem-solving at the same time we were eating good food. Back then, I didn’t think it meant anything,” continues the father of three small children. “Now, I think it meant everything.”

Benjamin, 43—a short, genial guy whose daily uniform, a beautiful suit, is a business-y contrast to Vetri’s chef’s whites—is a Vetri Family partner and the restaurant group’s sommelier. The father of two school-age daughters, he laments how rarely families connect at mealtime in the way Vetri describes. “My wife and I and the kids were at a restaurant in New York, and we were all enjoying each other’s company,” he recalls. He was coloring with one daughter, his wife was playing cards with the other, and the family chatted while waiting for their entrées. “Across from me was this woman with two kids. Each kid had an iPad, and the mom was on her Kindle. None of them were talking to each other. It was so sad! They were eating at the same table, but they were in their own worlds.”

Obviously, Vetri and Benjamin—as well as Michaud, 34, their James Beard award-winning partner/chef and the new father of an infant girl—know that their business success relies upon pairing sublime cuisine with an environment that enhances the pleasure of eating it. Since starting families of their own, though, their belief in the power of the dining experience—whether at home, in a restaurant or, yes, in a school cafeteria—has deepened considerably. So they were intrigued, back in 2009, when a friend and frequent restaurant customer, Michael Rouse, sought their advice about feeding kids.

With his brother Bill, Michael owns the for-profit ESF Summer Camps, whose locations are spread over five states. Lesser known is their nonprofit after-school mentorship program, Dream Camp, that’s aimed at low-income children. In Philadelphia, its annual summer camp springs to life for five weeks every July on the sprawling campus of historic Girard College.

Where things became “un-dreamlike,” Rouse told Vetri and Benjamin, was in the cafeteria. The Dream Campers’ low family incomes entitled them to free lunches funded by the state. But the food provided through the subsidy of $2.66 per child was fried, canned and/or over-processed.­ (Not a surprising find, considering that according to a study published in 2009, American school lunches contain more sodium and less fiber than is recommended by federal dietary guidelines.)

Rouse suspected that his Dream Camp’s nutritionally out-of-whack lunch offerings were contributing to a heartbreaking problem he saw among returning campers­ each year: They were becoming overweight. Plus, the junk in their lunches made them act out in ways they never did before they’d eaten it. For the poorest of the campers, the subsidized lunch was the only full, daily meal they could count on. What was its content teaching them about healthy food choices? And for all the kids, what was the presentation and delivery of the meal—unappetizing-looking food slopped onto a tray—telling them about their worthiness to enjoy sustenance?

So, Rouse asked, would Vetri and Benjamin redesign Dream Camp’s menu?

His request came at a fortuitous time. The year before, Vetri and Benjamin had launched the Vetri Foundation for Children, a charity to support kids’ causes. At the time, their main recipient was Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which benefits children’s cancer research. But the men were looking for projects that would help kids see the link between healthy eating and healthy living.

“We’ll not only design your menu,” they told Rouse emphatically, “we’ll cook it ourselves.”

But, oh, the red tape that had to be cut, reshaped and reattached as Rouse and Chef Michaud worked with the state to create an affordable lunch that would appeal to kids while adhering to federal guidelines. The nutritional content of proposed menu items had to be broken down to their individual nano-ingredients. Portion size had to be assured, so that each child was served the federally mandated amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, sodium, fiber and fat. In the past, portion control was easy enough to manage, since kids would be given, say, one pre-measured scoop of mashed potatoes or one pre-weighed piece of meat by a lunch lady loading the stuff onto trays. Not that anyone was tracking whether the kids actually ate the food once they got to their seats.

Which was a big reason why the new Dream Camp lunch would do away with two things so ubiquitous in American schools that it’s tough to envision any cafeteria without them: the lunch line, and random seating.

“Imagine you’re at home and you make dinner for yourself and your kids,” explains Vetri. “What if everyone put food on their plates and then went to different parts of the house to eat it? You’d be missing out on an important part of the meal—being together.”

So at Dream Camp, the food would be served family-style, just as it was at Osteria’s Kitchen Table. No flimsy plates, cups and utensils, either, since paper, cardboard and plastic would both create waste and cheapen the dining experience. Designated seating would be 10 kids to a round table, plus a camp counselor. And one camper—dubbed “table captain” and given a white jacket for the meal—would retrieve plates and bowls of food from the kitchen.

Before anyone lifted a fork, the chef (often Michaud or Vetri) would stand in the middle of the cafeteria and explain to campers what they were about to eat, how it was prepared, and what made it nutritious. Then came the passing of the plates, which were heaped with items that looked and tasted nothing like the Day-Glo mac-and-cheese and gray chicken nuggets they’d replaced: panko-crusted chicken tenders. Baked ziti with chickpea-and-cucumber salad. Roasted chicken with mushroom risotto. Sautéed shrimp with gazpacho. Strawberries with mint cream. Lemon granita. Melon salad.

“Many of these kids had never had a vegetable or fruit that wasn’t canned,” says Benjamin, recalling how some campers just stared at their plates. “They were wary of food they didn’t recognize. We needed them to at least try everything.”

So a reward system was devised, in which children earned points for each new food item they tried and for finishing their portions. Everyone figured it would take a few weeks for the campers to adjust their palates and attitudes to the new system. Because kids are kids, right? But, astonishingly, the children were hooked by the second day.

In addition, the counselors introduced “table topics” for discussion, encouraging civil behavior and respectful conversation. The wholesome interaction was new for many kids who, at home, ate their meals alone or in front of a TV. At the end of lunch, the children cleared their tables, returning dishes to the cafeteria workers.

It was a different way of being, a Kitchen Table way of being. And something wonderful resulted. The bad-behavior incidents that used to soar in the afternoon took a plunge.

“We all noticed the difference,” says Rouse. “Before, we’d have about two dozen kids acting up after lunch, and we’d have to get them focused and calmed down. Now, we had maybe two a day who needed to be redirected. I think it’s because they were finally eating healthy, balanced food.”

VETRI, BENJAMIN AND MICHAUD WERE SO MOVED by the changes they witnessed at Rouse’s Dream Camp that they began to dream of a world where all kids, not just Dream Campers, benefited from such a respectful, common-sense approach to lunch. They approached the Philadelphia School District about installing Eatiquette in the city’s public schools. But the district’s behemoth size, complicated work rules and uneven allocation of kitchens among its 200-plus buildings required far too much up-front tinkering with a lunch concept that, frankly, needed to be piloted on a much smaller scale.

Enter Pastor Herb Lusk. Football trivia fans will remember him as the Eagles’ long-ago running back who, in 1977, was the first NFL player to drop to a knee in the end zone to murmur a thankful prayer for the touchdown he’d just scored. Lusk eventually left sports for the ministry and in 1982 took over then-struggling-but-now-mammoth­ Greater Exodus Baptist Church at North Broad and Brown streets. Its social-service arm, People for People, includes an 11-year-old, 500-plus-student charter school.

Last summer, while Lusk was dining at Osteria, Benjamin spoke passionately with him about the Dream Camp lunch experience and asked if the Eatiquette program could be piloted at People for People’s school. Lusk’s immediate answer was, “Let’s do it.”

And that’s how two school officials came to lead the Vetri Foundation’s newest hire, chef Tia McDonald, on an inspection of the school’s cafeteria in early January.­ It’s an odd Z-shaped room whose fairly modern kitchen anchors the middle and is edged by the tray line. With narrowed eyes, McDonald opens walk-in refrigerators and makes note of needed equipment. “We’ll need a big immersion mixer, for the soups,” says McDonald, who honed her fine-dining chops in New York under famed chef Jonathan Waxman and as a senior executive chef at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, overseeing the creation of 14,000 meals a day.

New round tables and chairs have been ordered to replace the cafeteria’s long tables and benches. The room’s drab, scuffed beige walls have already been repainted in vibrant green and yellow hues, and pretty window treatments will soon be installed, so that the room feels beautiful. Chef jackets will be ordered for the table captains. Teachers and parents are being recruited and trained to man the tables. Assuming the to-do list is whittled down on schedule, the school will have launched Eatiquette by the end of February.

Whether the program, or different versions of it, can be extrapolated to schools of all sizes and demographics will depend a lot on the success of its implementation at People for People. Fortuitously, Eatiquette is unfolding at an opportune time: First Lady Michelle Obama has invited America’s chefs to partner with schools to create more nutritious foods for the country’s children. But the challenge now is to get kids to at least try the fresh salads and other healthy offerings that are increasingly being prepared in their cafeterias—one reason Eatiquette, which has barely left the dream stage, has already intrigued one very knowledgeable observer of the school-lunch scene.

“I’ve not heard of any other school doing something like this, where they turn not just the food but the social setting on its head,” says Susan Levin, director­ of nutrition­ education for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “If you offer nutritious choices to children on a lunch line alongside the burgers and fries, what do you think they’re going to choose? What’s been missing, in the healthy-school-lunch mission­, is a change in the dynamic of how we offer up the healthier food. This sounds like it has real possibilities.”

For Marc Vetri and his partners, the bigger possibility is that children will learn they’re important enough to enjoy nutritious meals in a setting that lets them leave lunch as happily sated as grown-ups at fine restaurants.

“It’s not easy to make the change,” says Vetri, who, with his wife, is mulling where their oldest child will begin kindergarten in the fall. (City dwellers, they’ve narrowed their choices to their neighborhood public school and a nearby charter.) “It takes work. It takes the involvement of everyone­—the staff, the teachers, the lunch workers, everybody. But the results can change the whole dynamic of a school; they can save a school. Once you know that, who wouldn’t want better for kids?”