Tricky customers

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Chef joins EWMS, EHS dining staff, works to build trust with students

It’s probably safe to say most of us wouldn’t mind having chef-prepared meals on the regular.

Of course, it’s possible to do so if you make a point to go out to eat at finer restaurants for every meal, but that’s not in most people’s budgets. However, students at East Washington Middle and Eastern High Schools now receive those chef-supervised dishes for every school meal.

Chef Joshua Mills splits his time between the cafeteria in East Washington Middle School and the one in Eastern High School, revamping school breakfasts and lunches to introduce students to new taste experiences, while still following the USDA guidelines. He was brought in to the school kitchens about two months ago.

Mills’s love and fascination with food started when he was younger than most of the students he feeds.

“I grew up in the kitchen with my grandmother, all the time,” he said, sitting at the mostly empty middle school cafeteria, the tables and chairs put away for winter break. “I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my grandparents. My mom was a single mom and worked two and three jobs at a time to make sure I had what I needed. Not always what I wanted, but what I needed.”

He grew up in Peru, Indiana, and after graduating from high school, he worked for a slaughterhouse. Mills said his work there propelled him to college, specifically, culinary school.

“I didn’t want to work in a factory or slaughterhouse for the rest of my life,” he said. “I enjoy cooking, I enjoy eating, so I think that’s the first step of it.”

He attended the renowned Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island, and studied there for two years before moving to the Miami, Florida, campus to finish his degree in Hotel and Restaurant Institutional Management.

Mills said he spent the next several years moving back and forth between Peru and a small Caribbean island called St. Eustatius, where he spent about a year.

“I worked for small, independent restaurants, the Department of Corrections in Indiana for about a year, small kitchens, large kitchens, serving 50 meals during dinner service over the course of a three-hour period to 11,000 meals a day,” he said. “I’ve worked in health care, quick-service, I’ve just done several different things.”

Now his latest clientele will be in the form of teenagers and school staff.

“I was working for a quick-service type of place and when you work as the general manager or an executive chef like I basically have over the last 12 years, you spend a lot of time away from home,” Mills said. “You spend a lot of time away from your family. You work nights, you work weekends, you work the holidays and you just get used to that. With my wife having the position she has at the University of Louisville Hospital, I wanted to be able to be home to support her in becoming the leader I know she is, and she’s a great leader. She’s a nurse manager with more than 220 employees. To be able to support her and let her fulfill her dreams, I wanted to look for something that was more in line with family life.”

As soon as he toured the school and met the staff, both the staff he would be working with and the general staff of the school, Mills started thinking he may have found his new work home.

“Everyone here seems to truly have the best of intentions for what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re very supportive of the children. They want them to grow, they want them to learn, and that starts at the top with the superintendent. Dennis [Stockdale] is just an amazing person. You don’t feel like he’s a superintendent. There’s a lot of servant leadership here. Everyone seems to want to support the next person in the chain. I found that even in the kitchen staff. … They’re all very much a team, and where their experience might be lacking, they made up for it in their ability to learn and take constructive criticism.”

For Mills, food isn’t solely about sustainence or nutrition — it’s about an experience.

“When we go to Mexico, we fine dine every night,” he said. “Ever since my son was 4, I never let him order off the kids’ menu. Maybe twice or so, but I want him to learn what duck tastes like, or what salmon tastes like. The first time my son ever ate duck, salmon, grouper, anything, was on vacation, so he got to experience that.”

That is the same vein Mills wants to travel in at school, introducing new flavors and new foods, along with old foods done properly, to students who may never have had the opportunity to try something different otherwise.

“Food safety is important, but you can’t put one thing over another in food,” he said. “There are so many things that have to come together so that our customers, our children — they’re customers; this is a restaurant — are happy.”

After Mills arrived, students began expanding their culinary horizons and found themselves faced with more colors and flavors on the serving lines. That wasn’t an overnight process, however. Restaurant customers and middle and high school students alike must form a trust between themselves and those preparing food that may be new and unfamiliar, Mills said.

“Kids want someone they can trust, that you’re putting their best interest at heart, and I don’t ever remember my grandmother serving me anything she’d burnt,” Mills said. “I remember her throwing things away and saying, ‘I wouldn’t serve that to the dog.’ It’s very important to me. That was one of the first things I tried to do, not just gain the trust of my peers, but also the trust of my customers. Just being friendly and hospitable and taking more of a mindset of a restauranteur than a food service manager or an institutional food service manager. … We want to teach them that it’s OK to try new things. Today, we had General Tso’s chicken. We had about 50 percent of kids who get exposed to regional cuisine, but there’s a lot of children, because of economics or whatever, they’re not able to. Not that they don’t want to, but they’re not able to. … I know at least a dozen kids I said to, ‘Just take it and try it. You’re going to like it. It’s really good.’ And they said, ‘Well, I don’t know …’ Just try it. What’s the worst that could happen? You not like it? It’s all about experiencing new things and hopefully we can broaden their horizons so they can have a different worldview. I want them to go home and tell their parents they had a great meal at lunch today. I want them to engage their parents and for their parents to send their kids to school knowing they’ll eat lunch because it will taste great and be nutritious. Those things don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”

You can read more about Mills and the changes he's bringing to EW students in this week's Salem Leader!

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