Steamboat Springs Filleting a fresh, whole salmon from Alaska, Max Huppert looks the part of an internationally experienced hotel chef. And although it's true Huppert has spent years working as a hotel chef around the world, the prime fish he prepared last week will be served to students at Steamboat Springs High School.
Huppert, the director of nutritional services for the Steamboat Springs School District, is transforming local school lunches from the stereotypical visions of beige mush to that of high-class, worldly cuisine.
"We're the only one in the whole U.S. that has a lunch program like this," Huppert boasted last week.
Huppert, with a shaved head and tattoos, said he has increased the quality of the basic produce and meats as he expanded the menu offerings.
"We're trying to get away from all that pre-made stuff that has all those additives," he said. "But we still have to use some to offset the costs."
Huppert said the food supplied by the state school food system often is filled with chemicals. As an example, he pointed to the list of ingredients on a box of fajita-flavored chicken strips. The ingredients included several types of phosphates and additives to give the strips artificial grill marks and flavor. In contrast, Huppert now buys whole chicken breasts, with no additives, and the staff seasons the meat with fresh herbs instead of mixes.
The school district's nutritional services department also is buying fresh fruit instead of canned fruit to cut down on students' sugar intake, and the new baking program is providing the schools with fresh-baked breads and rolls.
Many of the staples of the menu are being reinvented, Huppert added. Barbecue beef sandwiches still can be found in the cafeteria line, but instead of pre-processed meat, Huppert uses Angus beef on fresh-baked challah rolls.
The ingredients found in the pantry at the high school belong in a fusion restaurant, with saffron, rose water, coconut milk and fish sauce among the selections.
The price of Steamboat school lunches recently increased to $3. Huppert was reluctant to reveal the actual cost of the food, but he acknowledged that the costs paid by students isn't sufficient to pay for the cost of the ingredients. The remainder comes from district funds, he said.
"I think the community's very happy with what we're doing, and they are willing to pay for it," he said. "We hope it shows up in their test scores."
High school Principal Kevin Taulman said he has heard of schools in other states using whole wheat bread and more nutritious foods to increase performance and decrease behavior problems.
The biggest advantage he has seen so far at the high school has been enthusiasm.
"I hear kids say, 'Wow, the food is really good,'" Taulman said.
Some of the recent cafeteria offerings have included sushi at the elementary schools and Philly cheesesteaks made from high-quality skirt steak.
Huppert said the number of students eating at the schools has slightly increased this year, his second on the job.
Senior Parker Stegmaier said he has seen the quality of the food increase dramatically since Huppert took the top position.
"I've seen him do two years of this, and two years before : I tried to never eat the food, if I could help it," he said.
Stegmaier also participated in a summer cooking course taught by Huppert. The group made several Indian dishes - vindaloo, tandoori and others - and sold it at the downtown Farmers Market.
Growing their own
Some of the freshest ingredients the food system uses come directly from the schools.
Kat Ciavarra, nutritional service manager at Steamboat Springs Middle School, works with six student volunteers to grow a small batch of vegetables in the school's greenhouse. The lettuce, collared greens, squash, herbs and tomatoes then can be incorporated into the school's food preparation.
Ciavarra said the group's greens already have been integrated into the school salad bar, and she hopes to continue producing more vegetables during the winter.
"We talk about the plants and the problems that are creeping up on us," she said.
If a certain vegetable isn't growing well - this year, the corn didn't turn out well - the group figures out what the problems may have been and makes adjustments.
Huppert said the advantage to making so much of the food fresh also extends beyond the obvious nutritional benefits, and can even help prevent allergy attacks.
"When we're making it ourselves, we know exactly what is going into the products," he said.
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