When you take a bite of Beef and Vegetable Pita Pocket by Chef Azmin Ghahreman, you may think you’re at his famous Sapphire Laguna Restaurant; but think again as you may be at St. Anne’s school in Laguna Niguel, Calif., or one of the other schools where his meals are served.
The story begins, as Chef Azmin tells it, with his four young children. “We’ve always sent them to school with homemade food. Their friends started commenting on how good their lunch was. Even the teacher said, ‘The classroom smells like a great Caesar salad!’ Parents were encouraging me to bring my food to St. Anne’s school. So, I came up with ‘Every Child is My Child,’ and vowed not to serve anything I wouldn’t serve my own children.”
Soon, there were two schools. In January 2010, it became three. By the time the school year started in 2011, he was in charge of the food at five private schools. In addition he offers “Sapphire at School,” a complementary program that teaches kids about food in different cultures and geography.
Along the way, Chef Azmin didn’t encounter objections, just “adjustments.” Of course, with 800 students in one school, and 1,600 parents, you’re dealing with 2,400 different viewpoints.
Program advisors including the School Nutritional Board—a group of doctors, nutritionists and dietitians—guide Chef Azmin’s menu selections, which he bases on the Mediterranean Food Pyramid. Their recommendations include: Cut excess sugar and corn syrup; use organic milk and meat with no hormones/antibiotics; eliminate nut products; cut sodium and eliminate MSG.
Breaded chicken and fries are baked instead of fried, and portion size is planned according to age with every item under 450 calories. Menus favor complex carbohydrates from whole grains such as brown rice or whole wheat.
“What’s most important is a balanced diet,” says Chef Azmin who takes time to give high-fives to kids in lunch lines, encouraging new menu choices: “Try Teriyaki Chicken with brown rice, today, and Albacore Tuna Wraps with black bean salsa, tomorrow. Next week we’ll have your favorite, Chicken Quesadillas.”
—By Libby Platus, a food writer in Sherman Oaks, Calif.