Are the forks biodegradable? How are food item prices decided? Where am I allowed to eat? In the Angry Lion, questions about the lunches at Lakeside abound. While Tatler often receives hilarious responses from the monthly poll—a rant on pretzels’ uneven salt distribution, for example—students are at times uninformed when making comments.
A few months ago, an anonymous student posted concerns about the food pricing at Lakeside. “The cafeteria prices are so high. I don’t understand why. As someone on financial aid, it’s tough to buy as much food as I need since I’m growing and hungry all the time. [I’m] very grateful for the quality of food at Lakeside, but $7 for a lunch that can be very small sometimes… Come on.” This had us wondering: what is the process behind creating Lakeside’s school lunches?
To answer that question and take a look behind the scenes, we interviewed Ben Resnick, Director of Food Services. Read on to learn more about Lakeside’s kitchen operations.
What is your role at Lakeside?
I’m the food director and executive chef, and I manage eleven employees for Lakeside School. I do the pricing (with the CFO’s approval), the ordering, the inventory, and most of the recipes; we have a head baker now who does her own recipes, which is great. I do all the catering events at Lakeside—in COVID, they’ve come to a standstill, but we normally do around 300 to 350 in the course of a school year. For lunch, me and the sous chef will help make the soups, entrees, and vegan and vegetarian meals.
What do you have to consider when designing menus?
There are a lot of factors that we take into account: taste from the community, student requests, and nutrition. We try to add some culturally relevant food, like today’s [February 15] Creole cuisine from Louisiana. Maybe that’s something students don’t get at home, so at least they can try it and maybe say “Oh, I really like this!” We had a Japanese beef bowl that didn’t happen last week because of staffing issues, but stuff like that—we try to introduce it to our menu.
Peter Byerlein, he makes about 200 sandwiches every day. Our baker makes everything from scratch except the bagels, which come from Blazing Bagels. We try to give you a variety to pick from, because we know you come to school every day and have to eat from the same place.
How does the kitchen pay for food items?
We’re under Lakeside’s umbrella, but we function at a nonprofit level. The science department, for example, will get money in their budget at the beginning of the year—we get zero dollars, and we have to break even at the end of the year [through student purchases]. All our salaries, food costs, and benefits—they’re all wrapped into running this kitchen. It’s like a restaurant without rent.
If we lose money, it’s taken out of the general fund, and that takes away from tuition and scholarships; we have to hit zero or come close. When we’re putting the menu together, that’s a pretty big priority.
How has the pandemic affected kitchen operations?
I think we do great food here, compared to other schools. But food costs have been rising in the last two to three years. It’s not small increases in price, like the 8% we normally see every year. Raw product, like our chicken that we butcher and break down and cook on our own, is around 30% higher than it was a year or two ago.
It probably has to do with COVID, but it also has to do with jobs and what people get paid in the industry. Production facilities across the country are driving up the cost because they’re having a hard time finding employees. I’ve had run-ins where there’s no chicken product, or you go to the grocery store and half of the meat counter is gone. And that’s all production; there’s plenty of chickens out there, but not a lot of people to break them down.
We’re doing the best we can to be sustainable and sometimes organic. We’re trying to improve; it just keeps getting stifled with trying to keep the cost down for everybody. In our community, some people can’t afford a lot, and we don’t want to price people out. That’s the balance we have to play to get better ingredients.
On the topic of supply and sustainability: we’ve seen a lot more single-serve plates and cutlery in the cafeteria this year. What impacts has the pandemic had on the kitchen’s footprint?
Because of supply chain issues, it’s been difficult to say what is and isn’t compostable for the last year and a half. Today, for example, we couldn’t get the small compostable 8-oz containers for the fresh fruit. I had to use the round deli containers that are not compostable. All my purveyors are out, and they won’t give me a date on when they’re coming back in.
Because of COVID and safety reasons, we’ve had to switch our utensils because we can’t have everyone touching silverware. The black utensils out there are not compostable; we tried using compostable forks and knives and spoons in the single-serve machines, but the machines weren’t made properly. The compostable utensils were too light, I believe, and they would jam up. So for now, we’re doing the non-compostable forks, knives, spoons, until we can all come in here and hopefully be back to washing our utensils.
Is there anything else you want students to know about the kitchen and kitchen staff?
My staff works incredibly hard. Pam gets here at 5:30 AM, most of them arrive at 6:00 AM and work until 2:00 PM, and they’re basically working nonstop. They have their lunch break, but they put a lot of time and energy into doing what I ask them to do, which creates a better product for you guys. Instead of getting something previously frozen in, we’re actually cleaning the chickens, breaking down the meat, grinding down the meat on some days to make fresh burgers when we can.
One thing for the student body to know—we love getting requests! At the middle school, I get a few, but it’s mostly pizza, pizza, pizza!
Email works great. Constructive criticism is always great; it tells us what’s going on out there and if we can change it back here, we’ll try. If you guys are invested in it, we’re happy to try and help.
This interview has been edited for clarity.