Chef Dave's Cafe: Behind the Bench at Wolcott Elementary School

Welcome to the Red, White and Stars Cafe at Wolcott Elementary School, where Head Chef David Jourdan prepares breakfast and lunch for nearly 100 students five days per week. Affectionately named Chef Dave’s Cafe by students, this kitchen sources local food, including Just Cut vegetables, on a regular basis. Funds from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation grant helped purchase a tilt skillet, which was identified by Wolcott Elementary as a specific need for this busy kitchen. A tilt skillet is functionally versatile; the large, deep braising pan tilts forward to easily transfer food off of its surface.

Veggies provide crucial nutrition, but can be a tricky ingredient for school-aged children. Chef Dave is a master of incorporating vegetables and other nutrients into the food he prepares for Wolcott Elementary. The school kitchen, which opens up into the gymnasium, is homey and dynamic. Kids were running and skipping across the gym when we visited Chef Dave on a Thursday morning. Halfway through his typical day at 9:30am, he had already baked trays of handmade buns, muffins, and breakfast cookies, and was in the midst of preparing mac & cheese goulash with local Andersonville Farm beef and fresh veggies, including Just Cut carrots. He was also making an old standard, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for use when the kids demand a familiar staple.

The aroma of Chef Dave’s goulash and the set-up of his fairly small kitchen he has made his own was inviting and friendly. The kitchen was renovated last summer to include food-safe and institutional quality equipment. Chef Dave regularly encourages the students to come into the kitchen to see first-hand how the kitchen functions and how their food is prepared. He is resolute that this kitchen is also their kitchen, a shared space for learning. Students sign up to help serve food, assist with food preparation on occasion, and even hand pick vegetables from the Wolcott Elementary School garden. They bring Chef Dave little harvested collections, which he sorts, washes, and adds into his creations. Wolcott Elementary students recently harvested basil from their school garden and made pesto with Reeve Basom, CAE’s Place-Based Education Coordinator. Chef Dave added the pesto into meals served in the school kitchen.

One of the things that brings joy to Chef Dave in his work is being around and sharing his space with the kids. His admiration for their curiosity and energy, and their affection for him is tangible: the signed, handmade Chef Dave’s Cafe sign hangs with magnets on the main kitchen refrigerator, an homage to the household kitchen fridge and welcoming kitchen atmosphere. He is also a force of reason and open to suggestions. He will often sample the kids’ favorite snack foods, and then incorporate the alluring, impulsive aspects of these processed foods into his own creations, like breakfast ‘cookies’, which are more nutritious but still desirable. Dave’s experimentation has proven to be fruitful: the breakfast group is now up to 57 students, from just 17 during his first month in the kitchen, and on this day, only two students had breakfast cereal instead of Chef Dave’s meal.

When we visited, Chef Dave was using his newly acquired tilt skillet to sautee the beef and veggie goulash. He pureed the onions, peppers, and carrots (he prefers to purchase Just Cut whole peeled carrots so he can use them in more varied formats) to make them blend in with the sauce, essentially hiding the nutrients in plain sight for the benefit of the students. The tilt skillet is an exciting new addition to the kitchen and one that Dave is able to use in creative ways for many different foods, including boiling vegetables creatively in frying baskets (they’re not just for french fries!), sauces, stews, fresh blueberry pancakes, and even for boiling 30 gallons of water on the first day it was installed for a boil-water advisory.

Chef Dave is an amazing chef and wonderful asset to the OSSU community. He brings a level of enthusiasm to the kitchen that encourages student involvement, and is recognized by the school community and the board. CAE is proud to partner with OSSU and looks forward to a continued relationship of bringing locally grown, nutritious foods into our local communities.

Photographs by Kelly Bogel Stokes.
Last photograph (left) by David Jourdan.