Kenwood School – home of the two-million-star chili
On Feb. 21, I had lunch in Kenwood. I had salad from the salad bar, plus chili and corn bread, like everyone lining up at the door. That’s because it was chili day at Kenwood Elementary School and that’s what was on the Thursday lunch menu.
Full disclosure, I attended Kenwood School as a child. I ordered school lunches, with Wednesdays being my favorite because that was pizza day. Twenty-five years ago, the “pizza” was a soft roll slathered in sauce with some melted mozzarella - not the healthiest, but I still remember it fondly. I will readily admit, however, that my recent lunch at Kenwood School was an entirely different experience.
“It’s the best,” said sixth-grader, Adeline, sitting with her friends at lunch. “Better than any other school. I tell my sister what we had for lunch and she says, ‘Aw, I wish our chef made that.’”
Fourth-grader Lucas said his favorite day is chili day, although his friend Robbie said he favored spaghetti day and Breakfast for Lunch day, which rotates between French toast and waffles.
Chef Diana Wolfe, 31, has been making this same chili recipe since she won an award for it while a student at El Molino High School. She serves it with a homemade corn bread muffin and optional sour cream and cheese fixings from the salad bar.
“Lots of places don’t have the manpower or the time or the availability to cook from scratch,” said Wolfe. Her position, onsite culinary chef, is unusual for a small school district, as many in California get their food supplied by larger neighboring districts.
“It was a choice on our part to upgrade the program to provide nutritionally appropriate food for kids that they still want to eat,” said Bob Bales, Kenwood School principal and superintendent.
Wolfe, who has been cooking since high school, attended the Santa Rosa Junior College culinary program and then went on to work as a chef for Sonoma State University, feeding 1,500 to 2,000 undergrads daily. Then this “magical job kind of fell in my lap.” She said she jokes that it’s the Disneyland of culinary jobs because of the work she gets to do and being around the children.
Wolfe rotates the monthly menu based on student input and what’s seasonally available. “In Sonoma County in general we have great options for produce and the freedom to use local things when we have access to them,” she said. Kenwood School is also unusual because it’s not part of the National School Nutrition Program run by the USDA, and gets no state or federal money for its culinary program, but the trade-off is freedom to do whatever the community wants.
Wolfe has been running the Kenwood Café for four years, and is still tweaking and perfecting. Monthly menus are listed in the Kenwood School newsletter and online at the “Kenwood Café” Facebook page, where Wolfe also posts photos, recipes and videos of what she makes for the school.
There are 16 students at Kenwood School who are currently eligible for free or reduced priced lunches. Wolfe said she serves an average of 50-80 lunches a day. That’s a far cry from SSU where she was used to cooking for upwards of 800 in “a kettle the size of a small hot tub.”
Menu favorites include spaghetti day (“although kids don’t realize how many vegetables I blend into the sauce,” said Wolfe). Next to that is fried rice, and then Breakfast for Lunch day. “Although we have to manage the syrup so we don’t get complaints from teachers about sending kids back to class on a sugar high,” joked Wolfe.
“The ability for the students to interact with the chef on a daily basis is a huge part of the program,” said Bales. With Wolfe serving up the food herself, aided by sixth-grade volunteers, students are able to ask questions, make suggestions and are encouraged to try and experience foods they have never had before. “In addition, the aroma of the meal being cooked is something that the students and staff alike love during recess break. We think that helps to provide the nurturing environment that builds memories for the kids and is the hallmark of Kenwood School,” added Bales.
Recently Sonoma Valley High School senior Nick Spanger asked Wolfe to help mentor him in the development of a Kenwood School cookbook, with help from the after-school Cougar Club, as part of his senior project. The project culminated in a school-wide “Tasting Night” featuring many of the 25 recipes, and proceeds from the sale of the cookbook ($15) were donated directly back to the culinary program.
That being said, with a food services budget of $67,000 – which includes all salaries, benefits, food costs and other supporting expenses such as repairs and mileage – Kenwood’s culinary program struggles to break even. Wolfe’s husband, Jeff Jackson, a chef at SSU, often volunteers his time in the kitchen.
Bales would like to see the culinary program grow, with more students and community members participating. Starting next fall, the school is hoping to offer boxed or to-go lunches available for community members to pick up at least one day a week.
Cost for lunch is $4 for kids and $5 for adults ($4 for salad bar only), and a sprinkling of parents and staff join the kids on a daily basis. Staff member Jennifer Sternerson said she opts to visit the Kenwood Café a few times a month when her favorites are on the menu, which include the chili and the tikka that Wolfe makes.
Wolfe said her chicken adobo and tikka are two exotic recipes she’d added to the mix on a re-occurring basis. “It amazes me how frequently kids are willing to try something they’ve never heard of before.” She also includes at least one vegetarian menu a week, plus always has vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options.
A lot of the produce comes from Costco, but when she can, Wolfe buys from farmers markets and small farms like Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa. All the bread is donated from Sebastopol-based Village Bakery. Its owners, the Lum family, have a child who attends Kenwood School.
“We believe the quality of our culinary program for our students should be on par with the instructional program. We are pleased to be able to offer a high quality, “kid friendly” culinary program that will add to the overall educational experience for our students,” said Bales. And to that end, Bales believes a top-notch culinary program is an investment worth keeping.
It seems like many of the students slurping chili at the picnic tables would agree. One boy coming back for seconds gave the chili a “two million star” review.
Kenwood School, home of the two-million-star chili.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.