The air was filled with the smell of fish mingling with cumin, onions and cilantro. Students and faculty could be seen poking heads around walls at the entrance of the cafeteria hours before lunch was to be served. Lights were shining bright to accommodate a TV crew. Photos were being snapped. Something exciting was happening at the in Brookline.
Sonya Elder, the director of food service for the Brookline schools, was also on site. She helped set up this special visit and has been instrumental in bringing healthy and innovative change to school nutrition in Brookline in less than two years as director.
Oringer, chef and owner of six top Boston restaurants, James Beard Award Winner and Food Network Iron Chef America champion, and Elder connected through Chefs Move to Schools, part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. Launched just a year ago, Chefs Move to Schools pairs schools with chefs interested in child nutrition.
Elder heard about the program at a national School Nutrition Association conference she attended in Dallas.
“They promoted the program there and I signed up right away,” Elder said. “I knew I wanted to be involved.”
“This is a celebration of cooking in schools, which is fundamental to the quality of our program. I believe that cooking real food in schools is critical to the nutrition and health of our kids,” Elder added.
Oringer, who spent time in Washington, D.C., advocating for the Child Nutrition Bill and later became part of Michelle Obama’s Campaign for Fighting Obesity, feels passionately about the school nutrition.
“There is nothing more important to me, speaking as a father and a chef, than for people to understand how important childhood nutrition is and how important food is to well-being,” Oringer said.
So, what was on the menu? Oriniger worked with Elder to make sure the Devotion kitchen was stocked with everything he needed to make his special Fish Taco recipe, including breaded fish, chipotle peppers, lettuce, onion and fresh cilantro.
“We picked fish to show kids that fish doesn’t have to be boring. This dish is tasty, something you can eat with your hands, it is playful and creative,” Oringer said.
Oringer spent the morning working with Elder, Devotion Kitchen Manger Paulette Paula, Brookline High Kitchen Manager Teresa Vidette, and other staffers chopping cilantro and onions, shredding lettuce and mixing up the chipotle mayonnaise sauce.
Seen elbow deep in a mixing bowl filled with 100 pounds of cooked potatoes, onion, bell pepper, cilantro and black beans, Oringer also took Devotion’s recipe for Mexican Potato Salad and added a few of his special touches, including rice wine vinegar, olive oil, cumin and other ingredients.
Smiling his trademark grin, Oringer was respectful and complimentary to the staff helping him in the Devotion kitchen.
At one point, he turned up the radio and encouraged everyone to take a few minutes to dance and joke around. He also swapped recipes with Brookline High’s Vidette, and promised to stop by the high school some time to try her special corned beef.
After putting shredded cheese, guacamole and salsa into serving tins next to tall stacks of tortillas and trays of baked fish, the fish taco station was set up on the lunch line—with Oringer standing ready to serve up his creation.
Devotion principal Gerardo Martinez stopped by just before the first lunch period to meet Oringer and try a fish taco.
“We make tacos all the time at home, but never with fish,” Martinez said. “I think my daughter would love it. We just need to get in the habit of thinking about fish as an option. It’s delicious.”
Second graders came through the line first and sixth graders came soon after.
As they entered the cafeteria, they saw chef-coated Oringer. He greeted them with his wide, friendly smile and said things like:
“You are eating some special tacos today, made by a professional chef.”
“Do you guys like to cook?”
"Are you psyched for fish tacos?”
"You are in for a treat.”
“You have a professional chef here.”
Some kids spoke back to him, one saying the only thing he cooks is cereal. Oringer quipped back, “sounds like my wife,” in a good-natured, easy going way.
Oringer was clearly happy to be at the school and appeared to enjoy the interaction with the kids enormously.
So, what did the kids think of the fish tacos?
Most of the students we spoke with had never tried fish tacos before. Almost everyone said they liked them.
Oori Schubert, a second-grader, said he liked how they were “spicy, yummy and crunchy.” A nearby friend said they were too spicy for him, but we noted his tray was empty—he’d eaten the two tacos anyway.
Amir Siraj, a sixth-grader who never tried fish tacos before said, “These are the best tacos I’ve ever had. All the blends of spices, mixing guacamole with fish—I’d never thought of that before, but it is just fantastic.”
Emily Lieberman, second grade, commented, “I’m in heaven,” while Julie Peck, a second grade teacher who sat a few seats over said, “I think it’s delicious. Very fresh. It is amazing to see second-graders eating fish tacos and so excited about it!”
“I hope that Chef Oringer's passion for food along with his tasty fish tacos will encourage students to include cooking in their lives,” Elder said.
If sixth grader Jovan Mitchell’s response is representative, it just might.
“It is so tasty, it makes my taste buds jump up in the air,” Mitchell said.
And Oringer himself was a big hit with the kids. During a lull between lunch periods, he was surrounded by kids wanting his autograph. He obliged, even signing a chef’s hat brought in by one student. All with a smile.