Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Life as a Swedish School Chef

When Swedish school chef Fredrik Kampenberg heard I had been in Stockholm learning about school food there, he sent me an enthusiastic e-mail mentioning that he had started a Facebook page where he could talk with students about the food service operation he runs at a high school in Orebro, a town about 125 miles north of Stockholm. (See Part 4 of this series.) There ensued a rapid correspondence in which I encouraged Kampenberg to elaborate on his experiences being a school chef in Sweden, where the cafeteria is referred to as the school "restaurant." The result is this essay, which I have stitched together from Kampenberg's e-mails. His English is very good, so I've only made minor edits for grammar and clarity.

Swedish school kitchens employ some 30,000 chefs, prep cooks, dishwashers and other personnel. This would be the story of just one of them--Ed Bruske, aka The Slow Cook

Guest Post

By Fredrik Kampenberg

I worked as a chef in the public sector for many years, mostly in restaurants in Sweden, in ski-resorts and others. I´ve also tried my luck in fine-dining—starred restaurants in Stockholm. I ventured to the States, Australia and Tokyo for a few months in my early twenties too.

Originally I am from the north of Sweden, as it is called. Geographically it´s more in the middle of the country: Östersund in Jämtland.

I studied at Örebro University, in Grythyttan, where the oldest and most renowned culinary school is located, then moved to a small city called Karlskoga and worked as a head chef in a new restaurant there. Later I started commuting to Örebro, which lead me to move here!

I was out of work for a while and applied for just about everything, including school restaurants. I had a job at another new restaurant in town, but there weren’t enough hours. So when a job came up as head of a school restaurant, I had to apply for it. But, with my professional background, I really had my doubts. I really didn’t want to work with that kind of cooking.

School food had a bad reputation--even for me!

A few years ago there was a TV show in Sweden with famous star chefs going to school restaurants, trying to change them into better restaurants with higher standards. In some episodes their negative criticisms of the kitchen and how things were done landed on the people working there. Sometimes the criticisms were accurate, but very often they should have been aimed at those in charge--the government and so on. A lot of people in the business of school food took offense.

The show ran for two years and as one of its followers I thought it was interesting to see—largely because the famous chefs were sort of my idols then and seeing them in that environment made it all the more interesting, especially since the kids didn´t always choose their version of meatballs over the processed ones made by the food industry. It was a lot like what happened to Jamie Oliver when he showed the kids how chicken nuggets are made.....

As I said, that was a few years ago when I had no intention to begin working with school food. But it sure made an impression on me when I did become a school chef.

This job gave me secure employment at a time when the numbers of unemployed were rising. And since I have a son, now seven, the hours and the security of course became more important, so I gave it a shot.

Turns out it was one of the best choices I've made so far!

I started learning from the ladies in the school kitchen, all the different routines and what it means to have a job where taxpayers are the ones paying my salary. Then I changed everything, trying not to cook typical “school food,” or meals with the typical school food taste.

This proved to be too much for the young adults at the school (16 to 18 years old). When a local newspaper came around with their web camera, and the kids had a chance to say whatever they wanted, they called my food “gross” and “strange.”

I was very saddened by that—and angry with the newspaper for showing only one side of the story and the negative side at that. So I called them up, demanding to give my version. The ball started rolling from there.

That’s when I really started to work for good, healthy, fair, homemade cooking in the schools. I soon realized that we had to raise the reputation for school food and for the people who make it, one of the more important jobs in the country! It´s important for everyone in school restaurants—myself included. I refuse to associate with food that’s called "gross,” “bad,” or “disgusting." That’s how it was for 40 years and no one raised an eyebrow.

It`s time to take a stand--not dwell in the shadows--to step up, take responsibility and show that we are able to change the way the general public views school food. We are chefs like any other chefs. We just have to stop buying prefab food—crap that looks like food, tastes like food, and smells like food, but is nowhere near the real stuff that contains love, passion and knowledge.

Now, being the boss at a place funded by tax money calls for certain things--for example where the money is spent and how that information is public. There were routines to be learned. Especially I had to learn about being responsible for a staff in a way that a boss and chef in the private market isn´t. That takes a bit of time.

When I finally had some of those things figured out, I began looking at the menu.

The menu where I work is decided by a man who is the boss of seven high school restaurants. It´s different in almost every municipality, since they can decide for themselves how things are done, as long as they follow the law (sort of...).

He makes the menu, using recipes that are nutritional and in budget--typical school restaurant menus and recipes, meaning boring and often based on pre-fabricated components. For instance, meatballs, hamburgers, pancakes, bread and such. I used his menu and tried to understand what the main ingredients were. Instead of buying ready-made meatballs, I bought minced meat and the other things that a meatball consists of. You get the idea.

But it took time to get the ladies in my kitchen to do those things—make meatballs from scratch—so we exchanged industrial made meatballs for something like homemade meatloaf, which is basically the same, just another shape. You get the idea, again!

I remember when we were supposed to serve cauliflower soup, or something like that, and I served [the Thai soup] Thom Ka gai instead, using fresh lemongrass, kaffir leaves, red curry, etc. I even had one of the students who was from Thailand taste and help out with the soup. I thought it was fab! Usually we thought the food was great in the kitchen. But the kids did not!

Ever since, we in the kitchen love to comment on how much we like the food. We know that if we like it, the kids won’t. (Hee, hee!)

In fact, the most activity we’ve had on our Facebook page so far was when I removed the ketchup that used to be displayed at every lunch. The kids frequently used it, and I think it wrecks good food, almost like salting food and using pepper before tasting. Ketchup is the perfect companion to pre-fab food I think, as it disguises the poor taste and quality, covers up all those additives.

It’s a funny thing. We’ve had lunches where we gave the students a choice between a prefab fish with breadcrumbs, lots of additives and processed meat, and a fish that we made ourselves, with no additives. When we served the two different fish, we displayed them with labels listing all the additives and different ingredients. Of course the list with our homemade fish was much shorter.

There wasn’t such a big reaction—except we learned that the kids really liked our fish. So we’ve made it a few times since…

But the ketchup. Oh, boy. There was an uproar when we took it away. It’s been a year and the ketchup issue still comes up. Now we serve ecological ketchup—sometimes a ketchup we make ourselves. Why not? I don’t think there’s any harm in eating fast food or ketchup or candy or soda—as long as it’s not an everyday thing.

I think I was a big winner in this, cutting ketchup back from five days a week to one.

Whether you’re a famous Swedish chef or Jamie Oliver, homemade food is still hard to "sell" to the kids. They are in high school and they’re used to a certain taste and texture in food. Homemade food is very different and not every hamburger or meatball looks the same.

I gave a lecture once and reflected on this: "I was standing there, at the hot stove, making hamburger after hamburger, trying to get the color and the shape as perfect as possible. I was nervous knowing the kids wouldn´t like it otherwise. And then it hit me: I was trying to make my hamburgers as perfect and as much like industrial-made burgers as possible, when at the same time, the industry is trying to make their products imperfect to simulate homemade. It´s just sick!"

I created my menu together with my staff for a long time. The staff was involved and our experiments and ideas led to great recipes that were served in the restaurants. We listened to our guests—the kids-- and tried to reason with them, teach them, give them what they wanted. And I think we were on our way. The staff dared to experiment. They felt pride in the food we served. They were becoming creative and using the most important spice of all: love.

It´s hard for people to change 23 years of opening cardboard boxes, to stop doing what you´ve been told all those years and begin creating, thinking, taking risks and to invest feelings in their work. But they did, and they put their love into the food.

Then we were told that all schools that my boss was in charge of had to have the same menu. That set us back a bit! At the time, I had already received awards and a lot of media attention. My name was becoming known. But now the school food method that had made municipalities infamous was hitting us too.

But that will soon change again and we keep developing our two school restaurants in other ways. For example, one of the restaurants just got renovated this summer. I saved the old steam table and turned it into a cold buffet for salads and dressings and such. Our salad bars are now twice the size as before.

We also have a blog now as well as a Facebook page. I suck at it, but I’m learning. It´s about a dairy cow that lives on a farm 10 minutes from Örebro—how she lives, how milk is produced, how much milk is in one piece of cheese, how much time and effort the farmer puts into the operation every day.

It’s all about teaching ourselves and our guests—the kids--how things really are, to learn respect for the food and make conscious choices. Not just in school, but in life! That’s what I’m hoping for, at least.

Our "adopted" cow just had a calf--a bull. There’s only one ending for a baby bull. So it fits my plan perfectly. Maybe some of the kids will stop screaming for more beef now….

Photo credit: Andreas Hythen.

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