Classy Cafeteria Cuisine

It's the last day of school at Ashland High, and yet Susan Powell will stay on campus one more day. The cafeteria manager has a few duties to attend to before closing up the kitchen that serves 220 lunches and 60 breakfasts five days a week.

Powell, like the students she's trying to make happy, has had to study to succeed in the job she has had for four months.

The self-taught chef with decades of restaurant experience has learned about federal food guidelines, the school district's strict record-keeping requirements and how to serve up hot and cold dishes in a flash to a fleet of students ready to bolt to the nearest fast-food eatery.

But Powell's creative side has found a place here, too. Since arriving on campus in February, she has learned a different approach to cooking and pleasing palates, something she has been doing in Ashland since 1985.

Powell, 66, owned the polyethnic restaurant Pilaf on the Plaza for a dozen years and ran a commercial kitchen where she made granola, spice blends and other products for her specialty food business, Global Pantry World Food Co. But the bad economy and her husband's long illness before he died last year forced her to close her businesses in 2008.

Since then, Powell has been busy, catering with her daughter, Sarah Powell, and writing the food blog for the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, where she used to fill her Frida Kahlo shopping bags to create Pilaf's daily specials. She still spends summers at Paradise Lodge on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, riding the jet boat in with supplies, staying a week to cook, then riding out.

But she needed more. She took a job redesigning the food service area and crafting new menu items at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, but when the resort temporarily closed because of lack of snow earlier this year, she looked around for work in a different kitchen. She answered a posting on Craigslist and was hired to oversee meals at the high school.

"I'm 'the Lunch Lady,' as the kids call me," says Powell, her smiling face framed in silvery hair, her gesturing arm adorned in a turquoise bracelet. "This is a good place for me. It's not just a job but a place where I can tweak the menu in a good way."

She says Gema Soto, the district food service director, and the staff are dedicated to providing wholesome food made with reduced salt and sugar and no deep fryers.

"Everyone is open to being experimental," says Powell, a longtime proponent of buying fresh-picked produce from local farmers. "You just have to plan way in advance and be experimental for the future."

Powell laughs. Unlike running a restaurant, schools require precise bookkeeping down to the last unsold fish stick. Menus are laid out weeks in advance, supplies are purchased a month earlier and in bulk, and federal and state requirements, and the new Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act keep chefs from veering too far from standard cafeteria fare.

"There is an intense learning curve to all of this," Powell says, pointing to the daily production guide she keeps in an enormous binder.

Call it math meets home ec.

At the end of the school day Tuesday, Powell was inside her cafeteria, ready to roll down the gated doors when student Kaya Boehm walked in and asked for a napkin. "I'm not feeling well," said the ninth-grader. "I've felt sick all day." Powell offered her lemonade and ice and called her by name. Later, Powell says she knows Kaya because the girl eats in the cafeteria only occasionally and hasn't yet memorized her ID number.

Many of the students go off campus for lunch. But Powell is trying to lure them back with fruit and yogurt offerings, scratch cooking and the bottomless salad bar known as "BOB."

"I love the kids and I like serving breakfast the best because there is time for interaction and they are sweet and sleepy," says Powell, who was a schoolteacher in California before she moved to Ashland in 1985 and found work at restaurants. "They haven't gone through their day yet or endured a test. They tell me what they did on the weekend and their little stories."

In between managing students and paperwork, she cooks. She uses spices to add zest to unpopular food. The students weren't eating the raw cauliflower in the salad bar, so she roasted the vegetable, tossed it with oil and sprinkled it with cumin and paprika. "At first, the kids pointed and said, 'Ew. What is that?'" she says. One student tried it and liked it, and the word spread. Now she makes a giant pan of it and it disappears.

An experiment with another standby was a success, too. Eventually. When she added peas to brighten the pale-looking biscuit and gravy, it took time for the students to come around. But they did.

Some students are more adventurous eaters and fledgling chefs. When the staff was trying to find a substitute for the sugary glaze on the cinnamon rolls, a boy suggested using vanilla yogurt instead. That worked.

At Pilaf, Powell made a name for herself by seducing customers with the unknown. Sweetie Fries were crispy sweet potato fries seasoned with spices. Olive Fritters were crispy picholine olive patties served with aioli dip. Feta- and pepper-based spreads were served with yeasted flatbread, and ajvar relish, za'atar and other Middle East herbs and spices made their way onto the menu.

Some of that is sneaking into the high school cafeteria. On Tuesday, Powell made a spinach salad with pita croutons, boiled eggs and garlicky dressing to pair with one of three hot dishes.

Not bad for $3.35.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com

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