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Stirring it up

A new way of looking at school lunches is bringing professional chefs into the mix

Project Bread chef Kirk Conrad working with Lawrence High School head cook Rosemary Marte last month as part of the Chefs in Schools program. Project Bread chef Kirk Conrad working with Lawrence High School head cook Rosemary Marte last month as part of the Chefs in Schools program. (Photos By Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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LAWRENCE — Stirring 15 pounds of Red Bliss potatoes and six pounds of instant mashed potatoes in a 50-gallon steel kettle requires a paddle big enough for a canoe.

Toss in six pounds of canned yams, a few gallons of low-fat milk, a pound of margarine, salt, pepper, and onion to taste. Top with fresh sliced pears, apples, and cinnamon — and voila!

It’s Chef Kirk’s Sweet Potato Puree for 2,600.

Kirk Conrad, a baseball-cap-wearing classically trained chef, is spicing up school lunches this year, serving thousands of kids at Lawrence and Salem high schools.

“If you just open up a can of yams and put them out on a plate, it’s very difficult to get a kid to eat them,’’ said Conrad, 40, holding a big pan of his sweet feat in the kitchen at Lawrence High School. “But if you get a little creative and dress it up, the kids might go for it.’’

A “chef in residence’’ at Lawrence and Salem high schools, Conrad is part of a growing effort to curb youth obesity. He works for Project Bread, the Boston nonprofit antihunger group that this school year expanded its Chefs In School Initiative — launched four years ago in the Boston public schools — to Lawrence and Salem.

The goal is to improve school lunch by training school cooks to prepare fresher, tastier, and more appealing meals.

He spends one day per week at each school, cooking lunch from scratch. Soups, salads, and sauces, using fresh veggies, herbs, and spices, are among Chef Kirk’s signature dishes. He recently cooked up homemade chicken soup, handing out samples to kids in the cafeteria.

“He makes magic,’’ said Rosemary Marte, head cook at Lawrence High, as her staff of 18 prepared for the lunch rush. “He’s showed us how to use what we have to make something special. . . . Kids eat with their eyes. If something doesn’t look good, they’re not going to eat it.’’

Amid a national youth obesity crisis, professional chefs are being enlisted to teach kids good eating habits.

Let’s Move! — Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign — includes an initiative to have chefs volunteer in school cafeterias. The Bay State is looking to entice more cooks into school kitchens, too. The school nutrition bill signed into law last summer directed the state Department of Education to evaluate Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools program, and consider expanding it to other school districts.

In a study of 80 public school districts, Lawrence had a 47 percent rate of students who were either obese or overweight, the highest of any district surveyed, according to the state Department of Public Health. The study measured the body mass index of students in first, fourth, seventh, and 10th grades during the 2008-2009 school year. Salem was not among the communities surveyed, but data on more schools are being collected this year, according to the state.

The US Department of Agriculture this month proposed the first new school nutrition rules in 15 years, calling for less fat, salt, and calories in school meals. The new regulation is part of the the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress last month.

Lawrence and Salem say a school chef is a big step toward changing the culture of school lunch. “You can’t be afraid to change your program,’’ said Ann Marie Stronach, director of nutrition services in Lawrence. “Our mission here in Lawrence is to improve lifelong eating habits.’’

Chef Kirk, as he is familiarly known, trains school cooks how to slice and dice vegetables into neat shapes. He gives tips on how to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to offerings. He shares secrets about whipping up a homemade barbecue sauce, using whatever ingredients are on hand.

“He works great with the staff,’’ said Deborah Jeffers, director of food services for Salem schools. “They’re excited when he comes in. He makes [food prep] very fun and exciting.’’

And Conrad, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, looks every bit the part of executive chef. He wears a double-breasted white coat, with his name embroidered on the left. He wears baggy, black-and-white checked trousers. But, at 6-foot-2, Conrad found wearing a traditional white chef’s hat a too-tall order. The hat would often get caught in the doorway. So he traded that for a black baseball cap, often wearing it backwards.

“I have worn the chef’s hat, and sometimes when the kids would see me, they’d say ‘What’s up, Chef?’’ said Conrad, who lives in West Roxbury and has two school-age daughters.

He started his career 15 years ago as a prep cook at the swank Top of the Hub restaurant, in Boston. He later worked in corporate catering, including a stint as the corporate chef for Talbots, the women’s clothing retailer. He joined Project Bread in 2007 after working as a chef at a private school in Brookline.

“I saw this as a good opportunity,’’ said Conrad, who has a master’s degree in education. “Every kitchen I’ve ever worked in, I’ve wanted people to enjoy food. I especially want to make a difference for these kids.’’

At Lawrence High, the lunch rush starts at 11:10 a.m., when the first wave of students arrives. Some head straight for the pizza line, while others eye the steaming green beans sauteed with garlic and fresh tomatoes, or whole-wheat pasta salad, made with fresh cucumber, tomatoes, broccoli, and black olives.

“I’ll try it,’’ said one girl, laden down with a backpack. “Looks pretty good.’’

Of course, teens can be tough critics. But Conrad has scored big with entrees like his grilled chicken burritos, which the kids say are “mad’’ — translated from teenspeak as very good. And he knows when he bombs, like the time his grilled chicken teriyaki stir-fry drew icy stares.

“Of course they let me know,’’ Conrad said, laughing. “They’ll say ‘Chef, what else you got?’ ’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.