Chef Jammar Jones serves a few hundred meals a day in two seatings and manages a kitchen staff of about 14. Known for his multicultural cuisine, Jones is a stickler for locally sourced produce and fresh ingredients. His grilled chicken satay is a juicy thread of chicken thighs paired with a garlicky yogurt sauce, vegetable pad thai and bok choy cooked to perfection over spicy fried rice. His chicken and spinach pizzas ooze with just the right amount of melty cheese and the chicken vegetable soup is pure comfort on a rainy day. No, Jones’ venue isn’t located on a trendy downtown street or hipster Westside neighborhood — it’s the cafeteria at La Cañada High School, where he is the director of dining services.
The kitchen is a massive space where everything is cooked on-site with fresh ingredients — soup, salads, pizzas, burgers, cookies and the menu of his new six-week Taste of L.A. program, which represents food from across L.A. County. Jones is one of the staff of nutritionists, chefs and front-line workers from Chartwells K12, the food-service partner of La Cañada High School.
The idea behind the program was to end the school year with something fun and exciting in the lunchroom that was locally inspired. Chartwells K12 chose local neighborhoods with unique dishes to feature on the menu, created the recipes and worked with the school to implement it.
“We want to celebrate the diversity of L.A.’s cuisine and areas like Thai Town,” Jones tells L.A. Weekly in between prepping for the onslaught of hundreds of hungry teenagers. “These kids are so excited about having this event at school, so we have to keep up with the food trends. All of our produce comes from locally sourced farms. There’s quite a buzz around school about the program.”
Jones and his team serve around 850 to 950 meals a day across the entire district and use a web-based nutritional and compliance data system called Webtrition to ensure compliant recipes.
In addition to the weekly Friday program, Jones runs an on-site BBQ for students every Thursday at the high school and on Tuesdays at the elementary schools they also cook for. They have a “discovery kitchen,” where they bring in chefs from neighborhood restaurants for demonstrations and offer nutrition talks with elementary and high school students. There’s a separate cooking course (remember home economics?) at La Cañada HS, which Jones wants to help integrate into his kitchen.
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Lucky students pay $4.50 per lunch, which includes a drink and a piece of fruit. Lena Bonyad, cafeteria manager of 22 years, hovers over the students to make sure everybody leaves with a piece of fruit. Other neighborhoods featured in the six-week program include East L.A. (tostadas, enchiladas, taquitos, Mexican corn esquites and watermelon agua fresca), downtown (BYO ramen soup with assorted toppings, artisan cheeseburger with waffle fries), Koreatown (beef bulgogi with bok choy and white rice, kimchi, fried chicken sliders with Asian slaw), South L.A. (shrimp and grits, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken and biscuits) and Santa Monica (fish tacos with citrus slaw, California chicken flatbread with chipotle drizzle).
The goal of Taste of L.A. is to celebrate cultural diversity, educate and expand students’ palates, and instill in the kids the desire to explore these eclectic neighborhoods during the summer months. And at the end, Chartwells K12 will gather student feedback to fine-tune the project and increase student participation year over year.