Their new boss — Isaiah Ruffin, the first executive chef in Alexandria City Public Schools history — vowed more disruption as he packaged biscuits nearby. Their job titles, he told the women, had to go.
“I hate ‘school nutrition assistant,’ I loathe ‘staff nutrition manager,’ ” said Ruffin, setting down a biscuit and wiping his brow. “You’re chefs! This is a kitchen!”
Updated employee nomenclature — maybe “kitchen manager,” Ruffin suggested, or “cafeteria chef” — is the least of many changes he’s planning for the Alexandria City school system, which serves about 16,000 students in Northern Virginia. Other goals include securing more ingredients from local farmers, diversifying the menu and reducing kitchen waste.
But the biggest shift is slated for 2023: By then, Ruffin, 36, aims to eliminate prepackaged food, which currently fills 95 percent of the Alexandria City menu. He wants every cafeteria — across the district’s 18 prekindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools — to eventually make meals from scratch.
He will need to retrain dozens of cafeteria workers, but Ruffin is undaunted.
“It saves us money, and when you cook things from scratch, you control the components. You’re not worried about something with 30 unpronounceable ingredients,” said Ruffin, who started as executive chef in October 2019. “Most importantly for the kids, it’s delicious.”
Dofour nodded. She has witnessed students’ delight firsthand: A recent Wednesday marked Ruffin’s third early-morning visit to Cora Kelly, where he prepared students’ breakfast for one week last month in an early test of his ideas.
“This is harder than what we used to do, but the kids like it much more,” Dofour said. “They always complained about the frozen food.”
Ruffin’s hiring comes as schools across the nation are switching to cafeteria fare made in-house. He is at least the second executive chef to head a school system in the state (Virginia Beach Schools added its first executive chef in 2018) and one of an expanding roster nationwide.
“There have been chefs hired in food systems all over the country to do from-scratch cooking,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor who studies food and nutrition. “This goes back maybe 10 years. . . . It came out of an increasing recognition that school food was horrible, and there were also concerns about childhood obesity.”
If done well, Nestle said, teaching cafeteria staff to cook not only improves food quality but also gives employees more authority in the workplace, boosting morale.
Sara Bennett, operations supervisor for nutrition services in the Alexandria school system, said the district sought an executive chef because administrators want students to eat healthier foods and enjoy their meals more. Alexandria City officials also hope to reduce cafeterias’ environmental footprint.
Ruffin’s hiring represented a significant investment, and preparing food from scratch will probably drive up labor costs, at least at first. But the expense is worth it, Bennett said.
Alexandria City officials were also impressed by Ruffin’s pledge to reduce cafeterias’ environmental footprint, Bennett said.
“When we met Isaiah, we loved his passion for food and sustainability,” Bennett said. “He inspired us.”
Ruffin’s love of environmentally conscious cuisine dates to his time in the U.S. Army. A D.C. native whose mother served in the Air Force for 22 years, Ruffin joined up at 17, unable to imagine any other way of making a living.
A few years into Ruffin’s service, a supervisor noticed what he called Ruffin’s “knack for hospitality” and signed him up for a stint as a military chef. That proved fateful, Ruffin said, inspiring a lifelong love affair with food and the way it brings people together.
After leaving the military in 2014, Ruffin traveled the world as a cook, taking restaurant jobs in cities as far-flung as Austin and Copenhagen. He first noticed cooking’s environmental impact — the pounds and pounds of kitchen waste — while preparing massive amounts of food for U.S. Army troops. That observation later blossomed into an obsession, spurring Ruffin to earn a master’s degree in “sustainable food systems” online.
“We’ve got to do things now in a way that doesn’t impact our ability to do things in the future,” he said. “That’s why I am definitely trying to get more plant-based food in the menus, for environmental and social reasons.”
One plant-based item he hopes to introduce is the “veenie” sausage, crafted from eggplant, onions, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. When he tried this out at Cora Kelly a few weeks ago, it earned enthusiastic praise — perhaps surprising from a roomful of fourth-grade reviewers.
The key, Ruffin said, is advertising.
“You don’t say it’s plant-based, in fact you avoid saying ‘vegetable’ altogether,” he said. “You just tell them, ‘Hey! We have this really awesome chili dog, and it comes with a lot of chili sauce and cheese.’ ”
Reveal it’s vegetarian after they take a bite, he advised.
Another part of Ruffin’s grand plan involves researching each school’s demographic data, with plans to tailor menus to better match students’ cultures — for example, reducing pork dishes at schools with significant populations of Muslim students.
The schools in Alexandria have diverse student bodies: 72 percent of students are black, Hispanic or Asian, and students hail from 120 countries and speak 121 languages. Still, Ruffin said he feels up to the challenge: His time cooking in the military and overseas built “a strong background in global cuisine,” he said.
Plus, students’ reactions makes extra recipe research worth it.
“When the kids from different countries see their cultures on the menu, they get so excited,” Ruffin said. “At some of our elementary schools, kids won’t pick up items because they’re unfamiliar with it. It’s so comforting when it’s something they might see at home instead.”
And his changes don’t stop at the food, or how it’s prepared — Ruffin wants to switch up how Alexandria City disposes of food waste, making it more efficient and environmentally friendly. He’s still brainstorming, but initial targets include establishing a composting system and eliminating foam trays.
On this Wednesday morning, Ruffin was more concerned with the disposal of just one sandwich: the fried-chicken biscuit sitting in front of Roman Pettaway, 9.
Surrounded by third-grade classmates at Cora Kelly, Roman sniffed the patty. He pinched it between his thumb and index finger then snatched a bite.
“MMMM!” he exploded.
He looked up at the white-jacketed chef, whom he remembered from an earlier classroom visit, when Ruffin brought along homemade applesauce. Tasting the sandwich, Roman said, reminded him of trying the applesauce.
“I didn’t want to, but then I tested it once,” the student said, holding up a finger. “And I was like . . . Haaaaaaaallelujah!”