The World of Chef Jorge
It's a daunting task: Make New York City's school lunches healthful--and fun to eat
But few school districts have comes as far as fast as New York City. And much of that is due to the experience and motivation of Chef Jorge. He was born in Cuba in 1950; his family moved to the United States in 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power. He grew up in New Jersey, attended public schools, and worked in restaurants after high school until he registered as a journalism major at Temple University. Writing stories became tedious, he says, "and the cooking thing really appealed to me."
Into the woods. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1979 and trained as a chef. After graduating in 1982, he worked for the "Queen of Mean" --Leona Helmsley, known for her critical supervision of menus in her hotels and ruthless firings of employees. "I found my way to corporate dining," he says, setting up the food services for a major law firm that expected their catered lunches to compete with the city's finest restaurants. Then he and his wife made an unlikely decision: "We decided to move to Vermont." He first became chef at a Vermont boarding school, then in 1998 began teaching at the New England Culinary Institute.
But after 10 years, he says, "I'd done the woods." When New York University nutrition Prof. Marion Nestle spoke at the University of Vermont about the globalization of the food industry and rising rates of obesity and diabetes, Collazo took his students to hear her. "Suddenly, I realized what direction I wanted to go in," he says. A headhunter contacted him about the job as executive chef for the schools. "Everything came together. I've always had a social consciousness, and with this job, you can really make a difference."
Making a difference has meant not only improving the nutritional content of meals but also increasing the number of students who eat them. He has added new, ethnic dishes to the menus to encourage participation by the diverse student population--chicken guisado (a type of stew), plantains, Cajun fish, Asian tofu wraps, and corn bread. He has switched the snacks to more healthful choices, like bagel chips and low-fat popcorn. For the breakfasts, which the city made free for all students in 2003, he introduced a low-fat breakfast burrito and low-fat cream cheese for bagels. Breakfast-eating has soared; 5 million more breakfasts were served in 2005 than in 2003.
One key to Collazo's success is his belief that the students are his "customers" as surely as those he once served in restaurants and corporate dining rooms. "We're trying to bring concepts from private industry to market to our students," he says. Collazo and his five regional chefs regularly test new menu items in student "focus groups" where several hundred kids sample dishes, write comments, and vote on the item. Consider Garden Burgers. They were previewed in 15 schools, where cafeteria staff held "Build Your Own Burger" days. Kids loved them, and they were added to menus.