â€˜Major excitementâ€™ is the way Chef Maureen Pothier described the mood at last week’s gathering of chefs from across the country on the south lawn of the White House. Pothier said there was passionate heat from the heart as well as heat from the sun on the warm day in the nation’s capitol.
Hundreds of chefs were assembled to listen to remarks from First Lady Michelle Obama on fighting childhood obesity in America, and to sign on to the Chef’s Move to Schools program, an adopt-a-school effort aimed at improving school nutrition.
Chef Pothier, M.B.A., CEC, is chair of the Culinary Arts program at Johnson & Wales University, and was representing both the university and the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs association, for which she is immediate past president. Also joining Pothier from Johnson & Wales was James Griffin, associate provost at JWU.
Johnson & Wales is getting behind the initiative in a big way, Pothier said. The university hopes to have around 20 chefs adopt schools in Rhode Island and other areas of the country. In addition to chefs from the faculty, the school hopes to involve students from the Nutrition Bachelor’s program at JWU, she told The Food Channel.
Not going to be easy
The chefs were inspired by words from Mrs. Obama, and excited to begin working one-on-one with America’s schools. There were all kinds of chefs on hand, Pothier saidâ€”celebrity chefs and regular restaurant sous chefs, all talking passionately about the issue and eager to take part in the program. â€˜Everyone was excited about helping to do something important for this future generation,â€™ Pothier said. But, she noted, â€˜Mrs. Obama stressed that it is not going to be easy. That was kind of the theme of the day.â€™
Just as chefs “wouldn’t like it if people came in and told them how to run the restaurant, a chef can’t just walk into a school and tell them how to feed the students,â€™ Pothier explained. â€˜It’s going to be a slow process, a series of small steps. It’s a chef going in there and saying Ã¢â‚¬ËœWhat can we do to help? Can we do cooking demonstrations for the kids, or start a student club? Can we work with teachers, or help get the parents involved?’ It can be very powerful if each chef takes on one school, and it happens all across the country. There are a lot of chefs out there who want to help.â€™
Bill Telepan, chef/owner of Telepan Restaurant in New York City, also attended the White House event. “It was pretty amazing,” Telepan said, “the ability to get all those chefs from 37 states into town on such short notice. I guess when Michelle calls, people come.”
Telepan was one of several chefs who helped put together the Chefs Move to Schools website. He’s also an executive chef and board member of another organization called Wellness in the Schools, which has been working with NYC public schools for nearly two years. “We’ve gone from working with three schools to eight, and next year we’ll be working with 20 schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the South Bronx,” Telepan said. About a dozen chefs are lined up to work in the schools when school opens in the fall, he said.
A stroll in the garden
Pothier said the gathered chefs enjoyed visiting with each other and roaming the White House grounds, checking out the first lady’s vegetable garden, which the chef said was â€˜beautifully laid out.â€™ Chef Telepan was one of the chefs cooking and harvesting from the garden with the children that day. “It’s amazing that we all survived,” he joked. “It was so darned hot that day.”
â€˜Ending childhood obesity’s not going to be easy,â€™ Pothier said, echoing Mrs. Obama’s words. â€˜But with this whole contingent of chefs each taking just that one step with one school, we could really start to change things.â€™
“It’s just so smart getting chefs involved,” Telepan agreed. “We need to help the schools make better choices about what they’re serving the kids.”
Chef Pothier thinks she knows which school she might be adopting. â€˜My sister used to be a principal in a low-income school in Providence,â€™ she said. â€˜I’m thinking that’s the one I might be working with.â€™
Chefs wishing to sign up for the Chefs Move to Schools program, can do so at this USDA website.