L.A.'s Chefs Remember Their Favorite and Most Mortifying School Lunches

Adam GertlerEXPAND
Adam Gertler
Courtesy Dog Haus

L.A.'s food-obsessed and the people who cook for them were all at the Taste this past weekend, enjoying a wide sampling of the city's best food and drink. We asked the cooks what they remembered most about school lunches of years past. Some of them grew up in food-loving households. Some got nothing but apple slices and nutritional yeast. (Seriously.) 

Duff Goldman, Charm City Cakes 
I grew up in a town called Sandwich, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Plymouth. Thanksgiving was a big deal, with a lot of that type of food at school. When it was turkey and gravy lunch day, that was the best! I miss my favorite meal so much. T&G was so good — they took a huge scoop of mashed potatoes and put it right on your lunch tray. And they had these perfectly diced, cubed pieces of turkey, floating in a white gravy. And they would take the same scooper and put a huge amount of gravy in the middle of the mashed potatoes. They had cornbread, too. Then there was the time in preschool, I knew how to eat a hot dog. You put mustard on it, and that’s it. So one day, they gave it to us with ketchup and I was like, "I don’t eat it with ketchup, just mustard." And the adult was like, "You have to eat that." And I did, and then barfed all over the place. To this day, the thought of ketchup on a hot dog makes me nauseous!

L.A.'s Chefs Remember Their Favorite and Most Mortifying School Lunches (3)
Susan Hornik

Rika Yukimasa, NHK World TV’s Dining With the Chef 
My favorite back-to-school memory is having wonderful public school lunches in Japan. Overall, Japanese lunches use healthy ingredients and are very well-balanced meals. Parents would only have to pay for a small part, but the government would subsidize most of it. My mother never really made bento box lunches, so I was really happy to go back to school. While she used to make simple ramen or soba noodles every day, at school, they would provide various kinds of lunch options, such as a bowl of red or yellow curry or stew. There were different types of meat; chicken, pork or fish were common. Of course, the schools would also serve noodles or rice and vegetables. I always liked sharing bread with my friends if there was any left over.

Andrew Gruel, Slapfish
One of the reasons I became a chef is because I had a working mother. One of the things she taught me was when I was 5 years old — she actually made me make my own lunch for school! I loved making sprout turkey sandwiches. My mother would provide really good ingredients and gave me free rein. It was a fresh-baked bread my neighbor made, fresh roasted turkey with alfalfa sprouts and Swiss cheese. For some reason, I loved creating it!

Padmini Aniyan, Mayura
Born and brought up in Kerala, the Southern Indian state noted for its rich stock of spices, I have very sweet memories of my childhood and going to school. My father had a restaurant and my mother was a great chef who prepared all the masalas from the organically cultivated spice farms. She created this delicious food for me, using idli, dosa, upma, fish curry with garcinia cambogia and appam. These are my favorites! I would take the food to school, which I loved sharing with my friends there too. The mixing of masalas, and my mom teaching my older sister and I to cook, inspired me to bring the Kerala food culture to Los Angeles.

Anthony Carron, 800 Degrees Pizza
My favorite back-to-school lunch memory was pizza day, of course. My private school was unique in that we all ate family-style, with 12 students and one teacher at each table. Everybody ate the same meal every day. This was back before people had special diets or allergies. If you didn’t like the meal, there was a salad bar with a few options, like tuna salad and cold cuts. About once a month, we would get pizza day, which was of course everyone's favorite. Technically it was awful pizza, big sheet trays of cafeteria dough and cheap topping, but delicious in that special way — even bad pizza is still good pizza.

L.A.'s Chefs Remember Their Favorite and Most Mortifying School Lunches (4)
L&E Oyster Bar

Spencer Bezaire, L&E Oyster Bar
Back to school is always an exciting and dreadful time of year. When I was a kid, I never got Lunchables. Sometimes my mom would slice apples and toss them in protein powder as my lunch "entree.” I would be so envious of the kids who had something good. I went to a small private school growing up in Altadena — there were no hot lunches or anything like that. But at the beginning of the year, my mom knew first impressions were important. Because I was always made fun of for my lunches, she allowed the coveted Lunchable into a clear Ziploc bag that was my lunch box. (I always lost my lunch pail so she refused to buy new ones.) Unfortunately, after the first week, it was back to apple slices and protein powder, an orange and a juice box. Still, the occasional sandwich did make its way to me though — I had Oroweat loaf bread, sliced deli-style turkey breast, a dollop of Dijon mustard, with a bit of lettuce. And the Crystal Light bottled water to wash it all down, probably kiwi-strawberry flavored. Or I had the standard compressed pink cylinder ham, yellow cheese food and enriched flour Ritz crackers! All the good stuff.

Scott Howard, Citizen
My favorite back-to-school food memory was when my mom would go to the gourmet market and pick up all the things necessary for a muffaletta sandwich. It was something unheard of in rural North Carolina, and kids wanted to know where I got it. The ingredients had such distinct tastes — we used Genoa salami, pepperoncini, Italian olives, mortadella and mozzarella. It was all layered and stacked high on Italian bread, with the splash of acidity from the red wine vinegar. It resembled a sandwich like you would see in that cartoon, Blondie, with Dagwood Bumstead.

Ryan Steed, Wild Poké
I was always excited for lunch mostly because that meant I got to eat! Even at a young age, I considered myself a culinarian, putting the French fries inside my burger and boasting about my great accomplishments to my friend. I would devour it with copious amounts of ketchup (the good stuff) and mustard from those tiny packets. Pizza day was a personal favorite,. I would collect all the tiny pepperoni nuggets from my single square slice and set them aside for my last bite. I would make a sort of sandwich, bursting with tiny pieces of savory, salty nuggets. Lastly, there were those glorious pudding cups — having to use a spoon was something I overlooked often! I remember for the last bit of creamy deliciousness, I would dig my stubby fingers into that plastic cup and swipe at it until I could see through it, sometimes using two empty cups as a sort of goggle to amuse the other kids. Now I had reached a sort of bliss. Overwhelmed with sugars and processed foods, I could retire back to the classroom, where i would daydream of the next meal to come.

Fabienne Soulies, Pitchoun! Bakery
What's good is that in France you have two hours off for lunchtime. So you can have lunch and then have time to play before going back to class. I remember the time at 4 p.m. when we got out of school, I was always so excited for my afternoon snack: a piece of baguette, butter and milk chocolate tablet cut in squares and put in the bread like a sandwich. My husband, Frederic, has the same memory from his youth — I guess it's very French! Typically, the cafeteria was not great for lunch so we were starving for a snack. At the school, the French cafeterias are not self-serving like here. You sit with seven other kids, and the lunch ladies would go to each table with large pans and serve each child. Meat, veggies, then a piece of cheese and a fruit. Tap water to drink, and nothing else. In my Catholic school you needed to finish your glass of water and your baguette before leaving the table. On Wednesdays, we had a short day. We left school at noon and I would walk home to have lunch with my parents. This is my favorite lunch memory. We often would have the same lunch: steak or chicken and mashed potatoes and fresh baguette, with a piece of cheese and a fruit for dessert. I could relax at home, do my homework and go to exercise in the afternoon.

Jeff Lustre, Demitasse Roastery & Kitchen
I went to school in a small town in the Philippines. We did not have a school lunch, so I was able to go home and eat mom or grandma's home cooking every day. My favorite meal that they would make was a grilled besugo (a type of sea bream). Even though it was just a simple grilled fish, it was so fresh and caught by a local fisherman that same morning. They would serve it with steamed rice and a dipping sauce of soy, calamansi lime and shallots. It's a meal I liked so much growing up, I put it on the menu at Demitasse. As I think about my own children starting school, I want them to have the experience of eating a home-cooked lunch as well, even if they cannot eat it at home.


L.A.'s Chefs Remember Their Favorite and Most Mortifying School Lunches (5)EXPAND
Susan Hornik

Henk Drakulich, La Brea Bakery
When I was a kid, most of my friends would travel with their families during the summer and so I wouldn't get to see them. But when school started, we would get back together in the school cafeteria and grab a pizza and talk about our summers. This was in Italy, so the pizzas were pretty good, for school cafeteria standards. I got to live vicariously through my friends’ adventures while enjoying a great slice of pepperoni. Good times!

Tony Esnault, Spring
Growing up in France, we had a hot lunch in the school cafeteria. One of my favorite meals there was beef Bourguignon with mashed potatoes, a small baguette roll and crème caramel for dessert. It was fun to catch up with friends when coming back to school and talk about what everyone had done with their families over the summer. When lunch was over, all the kids had to return their trays to a conveyor belt that went to the dish pit. My friends and I played a game of trying to get out of this task by placing our trays on a different table, without being caught by the dining room supervisor. I managed to not get caught for an entire year. But when I did, my punishment was cleaning all the tables in the cafeteria after lunch for a month.

L.A.'s Chefs Remember Their Favorite and Most Mortifying School Lunches (7)EXPAND
Susan Hornik

Jenny Ross, 118 Degrees
I was blessed to always have a "from home" lunch, so that meant every year I got a new lunch box! Lunch box shopping was actually pretty emotional. Colors, favorite cartoon characters and, most important, does it have a matching Thermos. I remember fondly my Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony boxes (both with matching Thermos, of course). If you had a cool enough lunch box, you could trade its contents with almost anyone, as they would be focused on your box. This was the early chef in me, who got to taste lunch from practically everyone. Now my kids have their pick of lunch boxes, and guaranteed, they are pretty cool!

L.A.'s Chefs Remember Their Favorite and Most Mortifying School Lunches (6)EXPAND
Susan Hornik

Michael “Mick” Schepers, Hache L.A. 
Growing up in Spain, we didn’t have lunch back at school; we would all go home on our lunch breaks. I enjoyed my mother’s cooking, which usually consisted of fresh yogurt with bee pollen and beer yeast if I was to have something breakfastlike. It wasn’t a traditional Spanish dish, and not ethnic either. It was just her creation. For lunch, she would make things like lamb cutlets, sheep brain and calf liver (they were not my favorite, but they were supposedly good for me). This was always accompanied by a salad of endive or escarole with various fruits and vegetables with wheat germ sprinkled on the top, due to the lack of nutrients in the farmed food. And if for some reason my mother was unavailable, I would eat at a private club.

Adam Gertler, Dog Haus
My mother made my lunch for me from kindergarten through junior year of high school. As a kid, I was extremely jealous of all the kids who ate a "hot lunch.” It was a crazy mystery to me that some kids had things like pizza and hamburgers, while all I had were the salads, tuna or egg, many PB&Js, or turkey with mustard and soggy lettuce. I don't think I had a hot lunch until I was 14. Actually that's a lie, sometimes I "charged" lunch and threw out my own meal so I could relish one of those pieces of square pizza heaven. I unknowingly made my loving mother appear neglectful, by claiming no lunch. I was a fool, as all that hot food was garbage and mom's PB&J with some homemade cookies and a note that read "Enjoy your lunch, love Mom" was all I needed. My favorite lunch that mom prepared was a bologna and cheese with a little deli mustard. By the time I ate lunch, the sandwich would get just warm enough so that the American cheese would be all melted and delicious. My favorite non-homemade treat had to be the Jell-O chocolate pudding Snack Pack.

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