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New MPS chef aims to transform students’ food, one step at a time

Bertrand Weber has earned a reputation as a pioneer in the practice of putting fresh food on school lunch trays.

Bertrand Weber

Did you know that Minneapolis Public Schools, the third-largest district in the state, does not have a kitchen per se? It has a Nutrition Services Center, a squat cinderblock building located in a distressed north-side industrial strip that looks more than anything like the place where food goes to die.

Inside are locker rooms, offices, storage facilities and rooms full of stainless steel counters and odd-looking machines that aid in the preparation and packaging of food.

But a kitchen? That would have ovens and stovetops and aromas.

His second day on the job as Minneapolis Public Schools’ new top chef, Bertrand Weber stood before an audience made up of district brass who would probably sooner eat the contents of their sock drawers than anything produced in this cinderblock hell and sweetly informed them that they would soon be thinking of it as the Culinary Center.

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Mystery meat, meet your match.

A graduate of the Ecole Hotelière de Genève, in Switzerland, Weber has enough stars on his toque to cook in the world’s fanciest country clubs and resorts, which is exactly what he did in the dozen years before he was lured to Minneapolis to manage the long-lamented Whitney Hotel in 1991.

A key conversation

Fate intervened in several unlikely ways in the two ensuing decades and then last fall, Weber, now a fixture in the national Farm to School Network, found himself waxing enthusiastic about local produce to a woman who was part of an effort called Homegrown Minneapolis, which would like to see more of that farmstead goodness put before MPS kids and other locals.

“I sure hope Minneapolis hires someone as enthusiastic as you,” she said upon parting.

Weber did not know that Megan O’Hara is married to Mayor R.T. Rybak.

He did not know that MPS was looking for a new director of nutrition.

And he did not realize it had no real kitchen.

He took the job anyway.

On a recent afternoon, he stood outside his new office looking down through a long window at his new domain. “As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he observed. “We need to prove that we can do it first. There’s a whole lot of stuff we can do with this building as is.”

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Talented chefs

Weber started with the good news. He inherited a department full of talented, if demoralized, chefs — some of them with culinary training. They’ve been buying good food, but have no exposure to the tricks it will take to outwit the machines, which are best envisioned — and this is a gross oversimplification — as hoppers into which top-flight ingredients are fed, only to emerge transformed and in plastic packets at the other end.

This is where the years since Weber’s departure from the hospitality industry come in. He’s spent most of them figuring out how to get mass quantities of appealing food from a central kitchen to schools that are ill-equipped to do more than run the lunch line.

Drawing severance after the hotel closed in 1997 gave Weber time to spend with his kids, one of whom has type I diabetes. One day he went to have lunch with the boy at school and ended up enraged.

He went to work for Hopkins Public Schools, where he earned a reputation as a pioneer in the practice of putting fresh food on school lunch trays. Pizza, sure, but also whole plums, salads and deli sandwiches on good bread.

“I went in mad,” he said. “I thought it was just absurd, the whole system. I went into Hopkins like a bull in a china shop and it was successful. We made an impact.”

‘I believe in food integrity’

How? “I believe in food integrity,” said Weber. Take chicken, for example. MPS has been buying good chicken and laboriously turning it into nuggets, which sit in their steamy plastic packets becoming a healthier but unpalatable imitation of Mickey D’s.

“I said I was going to put fresh chicken on the menu in Hopkins and everyone said, ‘You’re nuts,” he recalled. “But it’s inexpensive and it consists of one product: chicken.”

And what of the industry that grinds up chicken and turns it into nuggets with the precise nutritional balance required by the feds, who subsidize every school lunch in the land?

“You can make the label [read] however you want, but you can’t make it taste like real food,” he said. “If all the school districts in Minnesota went to Tyson and said, ‘We don’t want nuggets, we want chicken,’ it would happen.”

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Of course, going to the taxpayers and saying, “We want an oven” is much harder. School nutrition programs are generally expected to break even. Which means that they need to feed as many kids as possible, whether their meals are paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or their parents.

Aware that it may be a child’s only access to decent food, poor districts frequently try to go the extra mile, serving meals all year and making sure no kid goes without. MPS offers free breakfast to all students, and free lunch to both those whose family incomes make them eligible and those who qualify only for reduced-price lunch.

Low participation rate

Even so, only 62.6 percent of MPS kids participate in the program — very low for such a high-poverty district.

“For us to make change, we’re gonna have to spend more money,” said Weber. “To get more money, we’re gonna need more participation. It’s gonna take some time.”

And it’s going to take a sales job. Weber’s customers are die-hard skeptics. “Half these kids live in food deserts,” he said. “Their exposure to food is Super America.”

Weber’s first goal is to get rid of the plastic packets whenever possible. He hopes that next fall food can start going out to schools — most of which don’t have kitchens, either — in trays called hotel pans.

He’s taken his staff on field trips to places like the New French Bakery and is encouraging them to think creatively. And he’s been gratified to be met not with new-boss resentment but with enthusiasm.

‘Market carts’ — and cookies!

Weber himself has ideas he would like to test drive, such as putting “market carts” with grain salads, fruit and vegetables in a few elementary schools to show that kids will eat food that hasn’t been nuggetified.

He’d like the fun to extend to the lunchroom, too: “Maybe people don’t want to hear that, but we’re going to put back cookies on the menu,” he said. Not huge ones, and not a fistful, but there’s nothing wrong with cookies.

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He’s undaunted by not having much of a budget. Surely there are food-minded locals who can be inspired to sponsor a cart or propose their own experiments?

“It’s going to take more than this building to make changes,” he explained. “I’m going to try to build partnerships. If a message needs to go out, it’s that any community partner who wants to get involved — print my phone number.”

It’s 612-668-2820.