By MICHELLE LOCKE
Everyone has a school lunch horror story, the mystery meat “steaks,” the limp, white bread sandwiches, the dangers lurking in any dish with “surprise” in the title.
But what if people with serious kitchen cred got involved? Could those sad school lunches be turned into happy meals? To find out we invited chefs around the country to tell us what school cafeteria dishes they dreaded most as a kid. Then we asked how they’d turn those dreadful dishes into tasty treats.
Here are some of their meal makeovers.
— PIZZA THE ACTION
Quite a few chefs remember getting poor pie — unpleasantly thick crusts, tasteless cheese, you name it, they ate it. Damon Hall, chef at MoMo’s, a popular hangout across from AT&T Park in San Francisco, remembers getting pizza “served atop some sort of facsimile-type bread with a ketchup-style pizza sauce, cheese left over from the war to end all wars and square pepperoni.”
But with the wood-burning oven at MoMos, Hall can more than banish the ghosts of pizzas past with a pepperoni pie that starts with a freshly made crust and is topped with tomatoes (fresh) and cheese (also fresh), as well as oregano, red pepper flakes and other seasonings to kick up the taste.
— GRILL ‘N THRILL
Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly in Washington, D.C., used to take a sack lunch made by his mom with a sandwich of American cheese, butter and white bread. Not the most exciting selection. That was then. This is now. The sandwich has inspired a lunch item now on the menu at Firefly — the Cadillac Grilled. This grilled cheese is made with Gruyere, cheddar, bechamel sauce and garlic herb butter.
— SALISBURY STEAK GETS JAKE
Jason Berthold, executive chef and partner in San Francisco’s RN74 restaurant, grew up in Michigan and remembers “many terrible school lunches.” But it was the Salisbury steak that stood out. “I wanted to like it so badly because it seemed like hamburger covered in gravy, but the taste and texture of everything was completely repulsive,” he said.
For a redo, he’d stay with the original concept, but introduce a few touches to add flavor. And he’d definitely use all fresh ingredients.
His recipe starts with fresh ground beef and adds minced shallots and garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard, along with egg, fresh thyme and sage, and salt and pepper. For the gravy, he’d throw in some thinly sliced cremini mushrooms and onions with more fresh herbs and seasonings held together with good beef stock.
The patties would get a quick grilling over high heat to give them a layer of smoky flavor, then would finish cooking while simmering in the gravy. Add mashed potatoes or buttered noodles and — boom! — one gastronomic nightmare eradicated.