Lunch gets a healthy makeover

A community of teachers, parents, chefs and staff called The ISHCMC Canteen Committee are revolutionizing what students eat for lunch at school.

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“We are taking inspiration from what Jamie Oliver did in the UK and in California,” says John, the Director of Operations at Global Café, a food service provider at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). Last year, the canteen committee conducted a food experiment at the school to gauge students’ interest in eating healthier. “We erected a temporary salad bar and set a goal of selling 40 salads a day. If we were able to hit that mark, then we knew we could go ahead with something more permanent.”

The results were beyond expectations, giving Global Café the leverage it needed to implement a healthier school menu and revamp the entire food preparation system, an ambitious goal for a cafeteria that must meet the dining needs of 1,500 children in the span of one to two hours every day.

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“And that’s why I was brought in,” says Gabriel Boyer, an executive chef with more than eight years of experience in kitchens in the US and Vietnam. “I am here not only to create more healthy food options, but all around better, more delicious, more nutritious food and also to teach these children about good food.” Last month, Gabriel lectured a class on various types of vinegar and how to enjoy them. Despite common expectations to the contrary, it proved an entertaining learning session – and there have been many requests for an encore.

The school food revolution begins with replacing store-bought ingredients and items with homemade or healthier alternatives. “We used to have an army of kids high on sugar after lunchtime. Brown sugar doesn’t have the same problem as white,” John shares. Store-bought juices and yogurt are replaced with organic varieties made right on the school premises. Wholemeal flour, granola and raisins are added into the baking process as substitutes for unhealthy ingredients. The result is a hearty offering of homemade muffins, cookies, sandwiches and pizzas every day from the school cafeteria.

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To the menu, Gabriel added in dishes from other cultures such as Malaysian beef rendang, Japanese chicken teriyaki, Italian spaghetti with Napoli sauce, and Argentinean sliced beef tenderloin with chimichurri sauce. “We want to introduce and educate these kids on international foods,” he explains. “After all, they study in an international school, with international schoolmates, and most of them live or will live, in neighborhoods where the people next door may come from an entirely different culture.”

The biggest change to the school cafeteria is the now permanent salad bar. “Our salad bar is not like others,” John claims. “Lettuce, tomatoes and carrots can get pretty boring, especially for a kid. We offer many salad ingredients for them to choose from, each of these ingredients is organic, wholesome and carefully prepared within the school’s kitchen. Every day there is a new salad theme. Today the theme is Tex-Mex. Next week it’s Italian, Asian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. This way, it never gets boring because every day there is something new waiting to be found at the salad bar.”

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The Friday Tex-Mex salad is a delight to the tongue. A single plate is made up of no less than 10 kinds of vegetables, grains and roots of all kinds. The Romaine lettuce gives the dish a clean, crisp base. Beans and paprika add a rich, buttery flavor while the sliced onions and riped capsicum add a tongue-tingling spice. Rounded it off is a dressing of toasted cumin oil that has matured overnight. The result is a richly flavored dish whose quality, and taste, would not be out of place in a premier restaurant.

According to John, the number one reason behind the success of the salad bar is the element of independence. “We do not force these kids to eat their greens. We put a bar there and we let them know what’s on offer for the day. They make the choice themselves. This is the philosophy of the school. We educate and empower. It’s very motivating to see a kid walk away with a huge plate of salad and know that just then they made the healthy decision for themselves, without parents or teachers coercing them into it.”

Images by Ngoc Tran