A smoky haze makes the stage a bit hard to see while walking into the auditorium of Edgewater High School. Off to the corner, it looks like something’s on fire.
But that’s OK. It’s just a shrimp flambé, and the kids have everything under control.
On Jan. 28, Orange County Public Schools introduced their new lunch menu like it was their own production of “Top Chef” — or maybe even a little bit better.
The cameras were rolling, five cooking counters stood under the spotlights. They even had a White House chef.
And as Chef Sam Kass counted down “five, four, three, two, one!” the skillets lit up, and the kids got cooking, showing off new recipes that soon may be a part of daily life in Orange County school cafeterias.
It’s all part of a nationwide campaign to help fight childhood obesity. Called the “Chefs Move to Schools” event, it spawned from First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” exercise campaign.
The recipes seem exotic, but they’re all designed to get kids healthier, said Vickie James, director of Healthy Kids Challenge.
“How many kids like mac and cheese?” she asks the crowd. Every tiny hand in the audience goes up. But she has a twist — there are cleverly hidden vegetables in this macaroni and cheese.
On stage in front of schoolmates and teachers, elementary and middle school students from across the county learned from some of America’s top chefs, who volunteered for the event. When convincing kids to eat healthy, presentation is everything, Chef Tony Lagona said.
“We’re not talking about eating health food, we’re talking about eating good food,” he said.
Speaking into a video camera at the back of the auditorium, Kass said that kids respond well to real chefs teaching them about cooking and nutrition.
“It’s a celebrity culture,” Kass said. “We have so many celebrity chefs now. If I came in here with a suit on, these kids might not listen to me. But they’ll listen to a guy in a chef’s uniform.”
Wearing a suit and seated between a group of students in the front row, Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, watched and cheered. The chefs seemed to be finding some converts.
The next step is getting kids to convince other kids to try it. That could be a hard sell, but the kids, including a few from Maitland’s Dommerich Elementary, said they’d be willing to try.
“It might scare them, but I’ll get them to try it,” 13-year-old Ryan Lamoreaux said.
Thornton said that after the schools are done converting their menus, it’ll be hard to resist.
“These school cafeterias in Orange County are going to be some of the best restaurants in town,” Thornton said.