Over the past five years, the preschool-through-eighth-grade school has transformed its kitchen from one that churned out frozen chicken nuggets that came pounds to the box, to one that at one recent lunch served house-roasted, grass-fed beef and caramelized onion sandwiches on rosemary focaccia. They were served alongside greens tossed with fresh peach vinaigrette and a tricolor spread of heirloom tomato slices, with pieces so red they looked like glistening rubies on a platter.
The program at Unquowa is the brainchild of John Turenne, an affable Wallingford married father-of-three who is at the forefront of a movement to return kitchens to the culinary roots of yesteryear, before big business became a powerful food force and before Americans started making what they perceived as convenient food choices.
Ascribing to an "eat local" philosophy may not be novel anymore, but in institutional environments, where potato Tater Tots and dollars drive menu selections, Turenne is a pioneer. Over the past five years, the former director and executive chef of Yale University's dining program has transformed kitchens like Unquowa's from places where food is shuffled from box to plate, to places that pride themselves as "farm to fork" cafeterias.
He has worked with New Milford Hospital, Litchfield and Region 4 schools - and corporate clients like Unilever - to make better, if not make over, the way food is served. Clients need not have an endowment the size of Yale's. In fact, Turenne aims to improve cafeteria food on a budget that doesn't budge.
For Turenne, who attended Johnson & Wales University, it all began in Yale's dining halls about eight years ago. There, he did the same thing he had at Wesleyan University and, before that, at Choate Rosemary Hall School. He pushed "frozen, processed junk" onto trays, following a formula that involved equal parts budgeting and feeding. That was before Alice Waters - famed "slow food" pioneer and restaurateur behind the Berkley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse - arrived on campus.
Turenne recalled being summoned to the president's office to meet a parent with a concern. That parent was Waters. She wanted the university to serve students better food. Turenne was asked to help. And while making the food better and healthier, he couldn't increase costs. Always up for a challenge, Turenne agreed, but not without reservations.
"It was all bottom-line driven, dollars and cents as opposed to common sense. I lived and died according to the bottom line, not whether the food was responsible," Turenne reflected, describing how previously, Yale students had more than a half-dozen hot food choices, a deli bar, a salad bar, five desserts, different soups and so on. "In places where captive audiences have to eat on a regular basis, not surprisingly, people would complain, and it was often of monotony. So we started offering more choices and the only way to pull this off and not increase staffing was to buy frozen, processed junk."
Turenne pared the menu to about four in-season entrees and side dishes. He focused his staff, telling them: "Let's put it together in a way that blows everybody's mind. We used to call it the seduction of taste."
Several thousand students, his own company and many clients later, Turenne has seduced many. He even seduced First Lady Michelle Obama, whose White House chef enlisted Turenne's company to help design a program called "Chefs Move! to Schools" as part of her anti-obesity campaign. He also won over skeptical Huntington, W.Va., lunch ladies.
Earlier this year, Turenne participated in a nationally televised ABC series spearheaded by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, called "Food Revolution." With cameras rolling, the team invaded a town dubbed one of America's fattest, and took on its eating habits. Turenne was charged with changing the schools, where he confronted cafeteria workers reticent to toss sloppy joes for food made from scratch. Before long, they got cooking.
"Now they serve 'Unquowa fries' in 23 schools" in West Virginia, said Peter Gorman, a professionally trained chef that Unquowa hired the second year of its new approach. He told this to a recent gathering of faculty, sharing his and Turenne's activities while encouraging staff to connect classroom lessons to what students eat.
"Many kids don't even know carrots grow underground," Turenne said.
Not all schools, hospitals or companies need to take the transition as far as Unquowa, said Turenne, adding even baby steps are successes worth striving toward.
To make eating this way economical, he advises using leftovers. For instance, caramelized onions left over from a grilled pizza event became condiments on sandwiches for faculty the next day. Gorman bought all the "second" heirloom tomatoes - discards that wouldn't sell because of ugly shapes or blemishes but were consumable - to make gallons of tomato sauce.
The first three years, the transition to local and organic fare had no impact on the budget, said Unquowa officials. Because of its success, more money was allotted to hire a sous chef and furnish a salad bar.
"Techniques we learn as chefs in fine dining restaurants can be applied in school settings," said Turenne, adding good food can cost more, but crafty technique equalizes costs. "We pay now, or we pay later because our society is getting sick."
Teacher Janice Shannon admitted some students grumbled at first during Unquowa's transition, mainly because they did away with chocolate milk.
"We just slowly made changes and now they cannot wait until Peter picks up a new vegetable," said Shannon, offering as evidence of success how lunchtime trash went from about four bags a day to one bag a week, indicating more consumption. "He'll grab a new vegetable and ask, 'What is this?' It's like a new adventure. It's not just lunch, it's part of our curriculum."
Lunchtime lectures alongside the clatter of plates are something Head of School Sharon Lauer committed to implement. She sought out Turenne, who created a model that could be adapted elsewhere.
"We threw the Frialator out immediately," said Lauer, describing how students spend one day each fall and spring at a farm. "I love that we serve beets. We have salads with beets and the kids will even eat sauteed beet greens, which is something many adults wouldn't consider."
Turenne used to eat the "junk" he served in the days before he started his consulting business, Sustainable Food Systems LLC. Since then, he feels better.
"There's a noticeable change in feeling physically, but also, as importantly, is the emotional belief that what I'm doing is right. Sustainable food, besides being more nutritious, is supporting small business in my community," he said, adding that if he could change so dramatically, so could others.
"I look back, how I would sit there and say, 'How can I get them to eat more and provide food cheaper?' At the end of the day, that was a success," he recalled. "Well, good God, now I'm foaming at the mouth. What's right about that? My mission now is to make the world a better place."