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Clark County School District Lunches Get A Tweak From Wolfgang Puck's Crew

Since 2007, Wolfgang Puck and his merry group of restaurants have worked with the Clark County School District (The Official School District of Las Vegas) to help educate the student population about healthy and nutritious foods and to help out the CCSD Food Services serve better lunches.  On Tuesday, October 19th, about 20 5th graders from Howard E. Hollingsworth and David M. Cox elementary schools were invited to the Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina in the Crystals Mall at CityCenter as Executive Chef, Dustin Lewandowski, and crew served up some tasty food and talked with them a little bit about what they were eating.

Clark County School District Students At Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

Clark County School District Students At Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

The way this tasting was set up is that each of the kids had a sheet to fill out.  There were five different dishes with two versions of each.  One was a recipe already used by the CCSD, the other was a tweaked version by the kitchen of the Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina.  Some of the recipes already used by the CCSD were already ones developed by the Puck people, but it was time for an update.  A great example of this was the first course; Chicken Noodle Soup.

Chicken Noodle Soup "A"

Chicken Noodle Soup "A"

Right off the bat I could see the kitchen was using Whole Grain Pasta with the brownish color.  Example “A” was a Chicken and Noodle Soup that featured peas and carrots as the main vegetables.  It was good.  I was actually surprised to find out the peas and carrots were frozen because they tasted pretty fresh to me.  Chef Lewandowski later explained to me that it’s all about how you bring the veg back up to temperature, and that the technology of freezing vegetables is getting better.  I was a wee bit embarrassed that I thought they were fresh, but hey…it happens.

Chicken Noodle Soup "B"

Chicken Noodle Soup "B"

Example “B,” however, was light years ahead of its predecessor.  To the stock, a little bit of parmesan was added for a little bit of extra depth.  Plus the vegetables of “A” were switched out for zucchini, squash and broccoli.  The extra layers of flavor made it one of the best Chicken Noodle Soups I’ve had in a long while.  While the table of parents was unanimously on my side with love going to “B,” the kiddies were mixed on their view.  Let’s meet the kiddies…

The kiddies enjoying some good grub!

The kiddies enjoying some good grub!

As I said before, there were about 20 or so 5th graders from two different elementary schools.  I, more or less, stayed at one end of the table and created a little focus group of my own within the focus group.  Before anything was served, I asked a few of them what their favorite lunches were.  I was a little surprised by the answers I got…

The Final Word In Food: Haley, Emily and Courtney

The Final Word In Food: Haley, Emily and Courtney

The one I could relate to the most was Courtney who said Ham, Cheese and Lettuce Sandwiches was her favorite lunch.  When I was her age, if it involved some kind of hot dog, pizza or hamburger, I was good to go.  Yeah yeah yeah….so maybe not much has changed for me in the last 20 years.  A little more outside the box was Haley who said that Caesar Salad was her favorite lunch.  I don’t think I even knew what a Caesar Salad was until my 20′s!  However, the one that really knocked me on my tuches was Emily when she said Sushi.  Sushi?!? Sushi! A 10-year old white girl just said sushi was her favorite lunch!  And to think I thought Chicken of the Sea was exotic!  A different era, I suppose.  I can only hope that someday if The Wife and I should ever procreate that our seed will say Saag Paneer and Lamb Rogan Josh.

The review among the table of youths was mixed between the two Chicken Noodle Soups, and it really seemed to come down how much they liked the strength of the taste of peas.  The peas used in the first soup had a strong, earthy flavor (part of why I thought they were fresh) and I think the kids equated the flavor of the overall product with the strength of the flavor of the peas.  The kids called it “seasonings” and such, but the only stronger flavor in the first one was the peas, as the tweaked edition was the one loaded with the layers.

A slamming Penne Bolognese at Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

A slamming Penne Bolognese at Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

Another surprise for me was the pasta course, of which the kitchen whipped up two versions of a Bolognese.  The “A” example of this one used Whole Wheat Penne once again.  In the bolognese was the requisite meat, but also a brunoise (Frenchy term for itsy-bitsy dice) of carrot, zucchini, squash and fresh herbs.  It was mighty tasty.  The second version of the bolognese was a non-whole grain Farfalle.  It was pretty boring in flavor.  It kind of tasted like something you’d get for a school lunch.  But, I thought the wild card was the use of the fun bowtie farfalle pasta.  I figured the kids wouldn’t care about the flavor and go for the more fun noodle.  Oh, how wrong I was!  The kids almost unanimously pined over the much more sophisticated version of the dish, with only one hold out saying that she though both versions sucked.   It was good to see flavor take a win.  The parents were also almost all in favor of version “A,” except one dad that thought the more basic version reminded him of his youth.

A Boring Farfalle Bolognese.

A Boring Farfalle Bolognese.

The food was all good.  Really good.  If I knew a school had someone like Chef Dustin Lewandowski cooking in the kitchen, I’d sign up all over again!  But is this really what a typical lunch tastes like in a typical Clark County School District school?  I asked the kiddies that question and it was a very unanimous, very thunderous “NO!”

CCSD Director of Food Services, Charles Anderson

CCSD Director of Food Services, Charles Anderson

Also present at the lunch were a group of CCSD dignitaries, one of which being the Director of Food Services, Charles Anderson.  I spoke with Charles for a bit about the differences between the kitchen cooking for twenty versus school cafeterias serving about 175,000 of the 300,000 kids that make up the CCSD’s student population.  The CCSD employs a central kitchen in which the meals are prepared, portioned and frozen.  Then they are delivered to each of the school cafeterias where they are reheated in convection ovens.  Much of the food is almost famously terrible, although not really for the ingredients used, but more for the big factory cooking processes that are employed due to the large student body.

The sad truth is that the CCSD Food Services is a business.  The CCSD Food Services uses no money from the school district’s General Fund as it is almost all privately funded through whatever the consumers (in this case, the kids) pay for their food.  The only money that comes from government sources is the Federally reimbursed dollars for Free and Reduced Lunch and there is also a relatively small matching grant provided by the State of Nevada.  Anderson didn’t know the exact figure of the matching grant off the top of his head, but it is less than $1 million.

I appreciated Anderson’s very candid, non-sugar-coated remarks as we chatted for a few minutes as the kids chowed down on their 10-course meal.  Once again I was proved wrong as I figured I was just going to get some romanticized B.S. sound bitey type answers.  Up front, Anderson said that he considers himself the “CEO of the Clark County School District Restaurant Group with 328 franchisees out there.”  Budgetary constraints are always an issue, and as a business, Anderson said that his “number one goal is to maintain solvency.”  He aims to do that by his department’s goals which are, “Stabilize Staffing, Upgrade Equipment and Streamline Operations.”

No, it wasn’t use organic foods and eliminate high fructose corn syrup and trans fats to appease the food blogger.  It was all business.  Scary and honest business.  The kind of business that makes you want to scream at how bass ackwards Government Funding priorities are in the United States.  Why can’t there be subsidies to provide a trained staff to cook a fresh meal at each school?  Why can’t there be subsidies so that schools can purchase fresh, wholesome ingredients?  Why can’t there be subsides so all children can be educated to know the difference between whole foods and processed foods?  Oh yeah, because we blow all of our money on this and that.

Maker of Good Food: Chef Dustin Lewandowski of Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

Maker of Good Food: Chef Dustin Lewandowski of Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

People do what they can with what they got.  Chef Lewandowski let me in on a few little secrets that are employed with the big industrial kitchens such as the CCSD Central Kitchen versus the luxuriously more intimate space he has in the Crystals Mall at CityCenter.  One of which is where he has the time and the space to reduce stocks and sauces down for hours, industrial kitchens don’t have such luxuries so they will use Modified Food Starches as thickening agents. Which tree does Modified Food Starch hang from?  Actually, a popular MFS is “modified” from potatoes.  Anywho, even smaller kitchens are using them these days with the Methods Formerly Known As Molecular Gastronomy.

Another big difference is where smaller kitchens would use stocks, industrial kitchens use bases.  Similar to bouillon cubes, chicken and beef bases are used as flavor enhancers.  Unfortunately, animal parts and vegetables are only part of the equation of what makes a base.  Also in there is also a whole ton of  salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, dextrose, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate just to name a few extra ingredients I’ve found in Chicken and Beef Bases.  Mmm…natural. In fact, we have a Disodium Guanylate bush growing in the backyard!  It’s right next to the Monosodium Glutamate Tree!  Oy….the things we put in our bodies…

The TLV Army of The Future!

The TLV Army of The Future!

At the end of the event I asked the kids if they had a good time to which there was a resounding “YES!!!” As a restaurant blogger, I can’t even tell you how hilarious it was to hear one student mull over the appropriate use of cilantro in one of the dishes and another remark how the pasta was a bit too al dente.  The future of the TLV Army was before me!

The 'Rents

The 'Rents

I want to thank the parents that were there for letting me pester their kids, the students for openly speaking their mind and the fine folks with the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group and specifically the Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina for inviting me along.  I also want to congratulate Chef Dustin Lewandowski and crew on a job well done and of course thank Charles Anderson with the CCSD for his time and his candor.  It’s easy for us to point the finger at the school district for less than stellar meals, but like I said before, they’re working with what they got.  They test each meal on kids at the school before adding it to the menu and if an item doesn’t get at least an 80% approval rating, it doesn’t get on the list.

It’s up to us as either concerned parents or concerned citizens to make some noise so maybe instead of cash being spent on a bomb to blow up some unsuspecting Arab family’s house, we spend it on some fresh green beans for our kids.  One bomb buys a whole bunch of green beans.  Just sayin’.

—–

Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina

Crystals at CityCenter
3720 Las Vegas Blvd. S. #240
Las Vegas, NV 89158

(702) 238-1000

http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/53877

—–
Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife.

Follow Mike and Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas

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5 comments to Clark County School District Lunches Get A Tweak From Wolfgang Puck’s Crew

  • Crystal

    This is a great article. I love seeing kids learn about food. Telling my 3 year old nephew about truffle butter is one of my favorite memories. :)

    I’m glad CCSD is trying to make more nutritious food. For too many kids, school food is the only food they get.

  • Thanks so much for the kind words and the comments, Crystal! This is one of those that I actually hope people read.

  • Sara Mackenzie

    Yea Mike,
    A great read by a warm fire and a lack of any other form of entertainment to keep me busy… i kid, i kid. Love the bio, keep up the great work!

  • Anna Lobker

    Hi Mike,
    I am thrilled to have found your article on line.
    I am a concerned parent of a 1st grader in Henderson, NV. When school started I signed him up for the lunch program. The lunch menu seemed ok, on the paper. 2 weeks ago I happened to be in the cafeteria during lunch time. The food the kids were being served was…well, not very appetizing to say the least… and …… Since then, while I can, I pack my child’s lunch but…. that doesn’t solve the problem, so I picked up the phone and made a few phone calls.
    At the moment I am waiting to have a call back from Mr. Charles Anderson. When I read your article, it’s as though you had read my list of questions for Mr. Anderson: why aren’t there subsidies so that schools can purchase fresh, nutritious ingredients and provide fresh meals on-site or through a contracted vendor? Can we offer Nutrition education so kids can understand what food does to their body and the difference between fresh foods and processed foods?

    Hopefully I will speak to him soon. In the meantime, i am going to bring this issue up at the PTA meeting tonight. Perhaps, as you said, if me make enough noise, some things will change.

    I’ll keep you posted.

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