By GWEN SISSON
As the father of two girls, Chef David Bruno knows children have a sensitive palette.
“You have keep their palette interested,” Bruno said. “If they get bored, they will stop eating.”
Chef Bruno visited Starkville last week to inspire school-based nutritionists from around the state to incorporate lower-sodium recipes into their menu planning in an effort to conform to new standards proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition department. The new standards are expected to be phased-in over a 10-year period, drastically improving the nutritional aspects of school lunch menus.
But Chef Bruno says it is important not to “scare the children.”
“Children will have many of their favorite items on the menu, such as sloppy joes or chicken fajitas, but we are lowering the sodium while heightening the flavor,” Chef Bruno said.
Chef Bruno said when reducing the sodium in a dish, it is important to gravitate toward fresh herbs, spices, smoked spices and different acids to boost the flavor of a dish.
“Flavors such as lemon zest or chili pepper flakes will keep the palette interested,” Chef Bruno said.
Throughout his visit to Starkville, Chef Bruno prepared a variety of recipes for school nutritionists, using a lower sodium homemade spice mix instead of packaged mixes for items such as red beans and rice, fajitas and sloppy joes.
“My favorite recipe was the red beans and rice,” said Beverly Lowry, director of Nutrition for Starkville Public Schools. “They were awesome. He introduced some spices like smoked paprika in the recipe which added flavor.”
Lowry said Mississippi schools are a little different in the way they purchase their food.
“We are just trying to get a head start on the new regulations that are coming out of the Healthy Hungry Students Act,” Lowry said. “Unlike other states, we purchase through a state cooperative and will be in the middle of a bid cycle as implementation (of the program) begins.”
At this point, state department standards have not been finalized.
“We have not had clarification or guidance at this point, but we do know that lowering sodium will be an issue,” Lowry said. “We just felt like a chef might be the perfect person to know how to make this happen and still keep flavor in the food.”
Before his arrival, Chef Bruno prepared a homemade Italian spice blend, a Southwestern spice blend, and a Creole spice blend. The Italian blend can be used in spaghetti, lasagna, etc., the Southwestern blend can be used in tacos, nachos, chicken fajitas, etc., and the Creole blend can be used in red beans and rice.
“We hope to have the new spice ingredients added to our bid and the recipes entered into our nutritional analysis program by the time school starts or in the early fall,” Lowry said.
Priscilla Ammerman, director of purchasing and food distribution for the Mississippi Department of Education, said in Mississippi, cafeteria workers actually cook the meals children eat everyday. That is not always the case in other states. Ammerman said districts will test the food within a school setting to ensure the students will actually eat it. If at least 75 percent of the students give the meal a positive rating, it will find its way to the permanent menu just in time for the nutritional standards to go into effect.
On a personal note, Ammerman said Chef Bruno’s baked beans were delicious, and his fajitas were excellent.
Chef Bruno was suggested by Dr. Sylvia Byrd of Mississippi State University as a perfect candidate to help Mississippi nutritionists update the children’s favorite recipes, and maybe add a few new menu items. Chef Bruno has always been fascinated with the teaching aspect of food, so providing instruction to Mississippi school districts was the perfect opportunity to do what he loves.
He became interested in cooking at a young age. Chef Bruno’s first job was in a deli then he began working with a local caterer. He knew he loved food, but was fascinated by the idea of getting an education in a career he was so passionate about. He enrolled in the Culinary Institutes of America.
“I was fascinated that you can get a job doing what you love,” Chef Bruno said. “A lot of times, you do not always get an education in something that has a direct application. I fell so much in love with this that I took a fellowship at a restaurant at the school that focused on the teaching role of the culinary craft.”
He focused on fine dining and worked with the very best operations possible to learn all he could about food. Chef Bruno considers himself more of a savory chef, but prides himself on his diverse background.
After 17 years in the food industry, he returned to his initial passion —teaching. For the past 10 years, he has taught classes and helped teach people how to make their favorite dishes a little more healthy.