Upper West Side Chef Takes Healthy Approach to School Lunches

Tofu banh mi, yoghurt curried chicken and miso salmon are items not usually seen in a school cafeteria line. But students attending an Upper West Side prep school are served this type of cuisine everyday.

Congress recently announced pizza would satisfy the vegetable requirement in school lunches, frustrating health-conscious parents everywhere. However, parents of students at The Calhoun School are resting easy knowing their children’s lunches are in good hands.

Robert “Chef Bobo” Surles has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to educating children about healthy eating habits and improving the quality of school lunches. He got his nickname from a good friend and decided to keep it because it reflects how he likes to have fun in the kitchen.

The coeducational, private college preparatory school where he works, located on Manhattan’s West Side, was founded in 1896. It has 740 students ranging from 3 year olds to high school seniors. Its academic reputation matches the quality of its healthy lunches, as many of its graduates are accepted into the nation’s best colleges and universities.

School cafeterias are notorious for serving grease-drenched French fries, frozen pizza and mystery meat. But Surles is optimistic their menus will eventually change.

“In the 10 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen so much progress,” he said. “But I’m depressed Congress made pizza a vegetable. They’re selling out to big food.”

Surles and his assistant chefs mindfully prepare lunches everyday, being sure to include a hot protein item, fresh vegetable, a starch or grain, a sandwich, soup and dessert. Vegan and vegetarian items are also always available, so students with special dietary requirements aren’t marginalized. Ninety percent of the soup served is vegan.

Before Surles’ arrival, Calhoun School lunches were as disgraceful as the unwholesome lunches of most American schools. But now, the school is regarded as a pioneer in healthy cafeteria eating due to Surles’ Eat Right Now program.

The initiative aspires to provide children with healthier meals, educating them about the importance of a well-balanced diet. Surles accomplishes this through cooking demonstrations, science- and culture-oriented lessons and after-school cooking classes.

The success of Surles’ Eat Right Now program has expanded well beyond The Calhoun School. Chefs from around the country intern in his kitchen. And five of his sous chefs have spread the program to other schools like the Family Life Academy, a public school in the Bronx.

Before the Eat Right Now program was implemented, parents were protesting The Calhoun School’s institutionalized food service, which contained items made mostly from canned goods. The school hired Surles in 2002 as a result. He left his job as a teacher at the French Culinary Institute to assume The Calhoun School’s executive chef position.

“He was always interested in kids,” said Beth Krieger, a school spokeswoman. “He wanted to teach eating healthy, portion control and the importance of using local food.”

Surles not only wants to cultivate good eating habits in children that will remain with them throughout their lives, but also wants to make them amenable to trying unfamiliar foods. Similar to ice cream shops that offer samples of flavors, Surles allows children to sample food items before giving them a full portion. He consistently places small cups next to soups.

“Chef Bobo took the fear out of these kids and gave them the ability to try something new,” said Krieger. “He has changed the palate of these kids and made it more sophisticated.”

With Surles’ exotic lunch options, parents are seeing their children’s food preferences expand before their eyes.

“My daughter has been eating fish for the first time in 12 years,” said Meg Joseph, the mother of a seventh-grade student Flory. “It’s great.”

Through major fundraising and a tuition of almost $35,000 a year, The Calhoun School is able to afford five assistant chefs to help Surles. Each has been professionally trained and specializes in a particular type of ethnic cuisine. Menus are prepared every 10 days by a different chef and placed online for easy viewing.

“The idea that my daughter goes online to see what’s for lunch tomorrow is amazing,” said Joseph.

In fulfilling his duty to children, Surles doesn’t disregard his duty to the community. At The Calhoun School’s annual auction, he usually places on bid a five-course meal for 12 people prepared by him. But this year, he offered something nobler.

Nicholas Potoker and Jennifer Arcure, who are married, won the bid to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the less fortunate alongside Surles. The meal was also co-sponsored by City Harvest and the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition. It brought about 30 diners to the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street Tuesday evening despite heavy rains.

Robert “Chef Bobo” Surles working with parent to set up charity Thanksgiving dinner

“We were looking for something different that reflects the spirit of Calhoun,” said Surles. “By cooking this meal, kids are learning about nutrition, good ingredients and community service.”

It’s not just school lunches that have ingrained healthy eating habits into children’s heads. It’s the school’s curriculum, too.

Surles teaches sustainability by having students maintain a rooftop garden, which contains rosemary, sage, oregano, kale, radishes, beets, carrots, a strawberry patch, two cherry trees and other salad greens. He’ll also be teaching a food politics course to juniors and seniors next semester. Although the course has not yet begun, Michelle Obama has invited Surles to Washington, D.C., twice to participate in her Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which she launched in 2010 to curb childhood obesity.

Surles thinks Michelle is doing “a wonderful, wonderful thing.” But children at The Calhoun School think the same thing about him.

Matthew, a twin son of Potoker and Arcure, said the novelty of Surles’ food doesn’t deter him from trying it, especially since he’s permitted a taste before committing.

“I know what I like and I know what I don’t like,” he said. “Sometimes I tell my friends who go to other schools what we’re having for lunch and they haven’t even heard of it.”

“It’s a good feeling to know your school has a really good food program,” he said. “It’s really cool.”


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