Over the summer one of the several renovation projects completed in Wilton Public Schools was the installation of a commercial kitchen at Middlebrook to replace the school’s existing classroom kitchen. GOOD Morning Wilton got a tour from the team who made it happen, from plan to execution:  Middlebrook’s family consumer science teacher Heather Priest, district custodial and maintenance supervisor for the district Jose Figueroa, and Middlebrook dean Jory Higgins–and found out how impactful the changes will be for everyone.

Heather Priest:  The kitchen that was in here previously was your traditional “Home-Ec Kitchen.” It was designed for very light cooking, more like something you’d have in your home. Unfortunately, with 1,100 students in a building coming through, it wasn’t a sustainable model for the amount of cooking we do.

So when Jose came to me and said, ‘We’re thinking of remodeling,’ I was like, ‘Well, we should do commercial.’ And he said, ‘That’s exactly what I had in mind.’ We were always on the same page with what it was.

Jose Figueroa:  It was definitely needed. The space, with Heather’s input, she put together a very nice culinary program which now you can break up the kids into five smaller groups that have their own areas to do their culinary experience so, it works out very well.

Priest:  The big thing that was different is we also moved it out quite a bit–we gave ourselves a lot more space in the kitchen.

Figueroa:  We went off the wall six feet.

Priest:  It was a big extension because we don’t sit. [The class size of 20-24 students] sits at the tables for maybe five minutes when I’m doing a couple of intros. And that’s it, then we’re in the kitchen.

The next big thing was from a sanitation standpoint:  having the garden, having this many kids, we really needed to evaluate dish washing, making sure that we were up to code with all of that, making sure that we had proper sinks for all the vegetable washing. The vegetables that most kitchens get are stuff that’s already been washed from the grocery store. We’re pulling stuff straight from the garden, right? So it was really important for us to have vegetables sinks. So we went from having four sinks to having 12 sinks.

So now we have a vegetable sink in each kitchen; we have hand washing stations for hand washing; and then we have the traditional, commercial, three-bay sink–you wash, rinse, then sanitize your larger dishes, which is a great thing that the students are getting trained on.

We’re doing a lot of food safety stuff.

Also, one of my favorite new pieces:  we have a 90-second steam dishwasher on each side. Just to give you perspective, I would come in every morning, and I had two, like at-your-home dishwashers. I would empty all that after C period before I had lunch duty–I would load it as full as I could, and then I would run into lunch duty. Then I would have to wait until about five minutes before F period started, unload everything trying to dry and get it back on the shelves for my F period class and then I would end up with so many dishes by the end of H period that I was here until six o’clock every day, just washing dishes. With everything else that I’m doing with the garden, it just was overwhelming. This is life changing for me.

Figueroa:  We also installed two grease traps, which we originally did not have. They’d get clogged up, we’d have to take the time to snake the drain. Now we don’t have to worry about it.

Priest:  Gas [stoves] was an introduction this year, obviously there’s safety concerns. One of the things we did that I really love is, in addition to the gas burners, we also put griddles on so we can ease kids in to using the gas burners. A lot of the stuff we’re going to do in 6th grade we’re going to do on the griddle, get them used to being around the stove and then move them up towards the gas burners.

With the changes, now I can fit more techniques in because the amount of time it takes to actually perform a recipe is going to be shorter. For instance, with my egg recipes, before I’d have to actually get all the water on to boil for the kids before they got here, because it took so long for the water to boil. With pasta I’d have to put the water on for them. So I was running around with pots, it was a lot of extra work, which slows you down.

GMW:  And takes the kids out of the equation, if you’re doing it for them.

Priest:  Right. So I’m able to introduce more techniques, I’m able to speed up the process along the way. I can fit more recipes in before the end of the quarter. That’s huge, because I only get each student technically for about 23 days. I have to jam as much in as I possibly can. This is going to enable me to do much more.

So this week, we have done a balsamic vinaigrette with the cucumbers, tomatoes and basil from the garden with fresh mozzarella. The 7th graders made blueberry corn muffins with a crumb topping, and the 8th graders did eggs six different ways and they made french fries and home fries. So yeah, we jumped right in. I don’t like to waste time. [Laughs]

This year I’m trying to do more ethnic cuisines, trying to encompass all the many different, diverse cultures that are represented in the school. Trying to take a little piece of all of those and introduce the kids, even if it’s just in a light way, where they can just see some of the flavor components and some of the ingredients that are used. I think it’s huge. And this is going to make it so much easier to do that as well. My 8th grade curriculum is really starting to evolve to be more of an ethnic food curriculum–using ethnic food to do all the culinary techniques.

GMW:  All the kids in the school come through here, all the kids get this exposure?

Priest:  For three years in a row, they’re in all here. It’s a scaffold.

Figueroa:  So we have one piece of equipment that we still have to purchase I just had to get approval from the fire marshal which is a convection oven for here–this section of culinary is more handicap accessible. So that we have students that will have an oven here that they’ll be able to utilize their space.

Priest:  So they’ll be able to wheel up and open up an oven, that’s separate from where the stove top is. And then also have sinks that they can wheel up to. Over there we have a space open [at that prep table] on the other side for anyone in a wheelchair. So it’s important for that as well.

Figueroa:  So that’s the last piece of equipment once we get that, we’ll be done.

Priest:  The administration has been so supportive of me, and all these programs. We’re so fortunate. Now with the greenhouse, with this, and Continuing Education–that too is such a huge part of this; I work with them during the summer and do other programs with them. It’s going to be a big difference for the kids, a big difference for the community. So I was glad they supported it.

Figueroa:  And that came from up top, even from [superintendent] Dr. Kevin Smith and the Board of Education, and you have to thank Continuing Ed, it was something that they definitely wanted. Originally, we were just going to do the [commercial kitchen] hoods but I saw the opportunity, and I said, ‘Let’s take advantage of it.’ And we put together a nice end product. It was a team effort, and it’s nice to have the support–really, it means a lot.

This is probably the only middle school that I know of, a public school, that has this level of culinary program. There’s no other school and it’s really nice. When you really think about it, it’s amazing.

We started discussing it, probably April, May, had a plan by June. We did an RFP, and put it out to bid and, you know, Warehouse Restaurant Supply out of Naugatuck put together a nice product with a floor plan. And then I met with [school facilities director] Chris Burney and Dr. Smith and said, ‘I know we could get this done this summer, it’s going to be a lot but let’s get it done.

Heather, and the high school, they’ve been waiting for many, many years to get a space that they’re able to work with. I’m just happy to hear that it saves her time, because she’s always on the run. I don’t know how she does it. Whenever we can save her some time, it’s huge. To come in here and see her working with the kids, it’s really rewarding. It really is. I’m happy.

So there was a lot that was done. We did everything–new ceiling tiles, new LED lighting. We put a new floor down. I mean, the only thing we owe her is a walk in cooler, which I told her in a couple of years. We’ll work on that. That would put the cherry on top.

Jory Higgins:  This guy [Figueroa] went above and beyond, whether it was staying late to make sure that one last contractor was here, or ‘Nope, that’s not right. Let’s make it right.’ And the last thing he wants is the light on him to shine. He says ‘No, team effort, team effort.’ Which is baloney. Jose is a rock star. He helped make this happen through and through, whether he was in the building or chasing people down and making it happen. He was incredible, whether it was getting the team in here to do the dismantle at the start and get that all done, because then there were deadlines and times when contractors were coming in, and when they were going to be here, it was not something we had control over. He was making sure to orchestrate that.

The fun part of it, too is–all of the 6th graders, this is all they know–but the 7th and 8th graders, they had no clue this was happening, and when you can see some of their reactions when they see it…

Priest:  Especially once they get to be 8th graders, they have a whole new appreciation for these amazing tools they get to take advantage of, they actually do understand, ‘Wow, we get to use this? This is so cool, I can’t believe we get to do this!’ The 7th graders appreciate it, but they’re so in their own head–they don’t necessarily say it. But 8th graders are just jazzed, they’re so psyched to be in here.

GMW:  For them to be using these kinds of things? This is what I expect to see in a restaurant, and they’re getting the opportunity to do this.

Priest:  If you can manipulate restaurant-style equipment, home equipment is a piece of cake. I tell the kids the biggest difference about cooking with gas, and cooking with electric or even with conduction stovetops, is that if you can learn how to manage your flame properly, then you’re going to be able to cook anything. Being able to look down, see what the height of the flame is and adjust it and learn how to work with that–that’s half the battle with cooking. A lot of them are starting to get it already, I’ll see them bobbing up and down trying to look at the flames. It’s hysterical, but they’re getting it and we’ve only been here for a few days, so it’s pretty cool. Most of these kids have gas at home, so it’s important for them to use it.

Higgins:  The guys that were putting this equipment in said, ‘We just did a restaurant last week and this stuff’s better–this is nicer, it’s great quality.’

Figueroa:  And to provide a feeder program to get the kids ready for the high school–they’re going to have the same equipment there–that’s huge. It was a huge investment. It’s something that’s going to last 20 years, 25 years, we’re not thinking five- to 10 years. So it was money well spent and it will be here for a while.

They gave us a budget and we came below the budget. It was $175,000–$75,000 for the hoods and then $100,000 for the equipment and install.

Higgins:  It’s only as limited as Heather is. And I don’t mean that in a flippant way, she’s the one with the vision that is able to help guide us where we’re going. To talk about 21st century skills all the time–like, what is cooking in America? We always need to be able to cook, but how do we do it in a sustainable way, from planting it to now replanting, and everything that comes with it. It’s an incredible knowledge base that we’ve got thousands of kids every year now getting a taste of (no pun intended), to specifically see what they can do and realize all the [sustainability] work that [Heather has] done in the cafeteria as well.

Think about the ‘no waste’ concept. It’s all tied together. Everybody understands it’s every part of your life–on top of it when our stores in town are eliminating plastic bags. Everybody’s paying attention, that same message, which is great. Where we go with this and what she wants to try to do next, maybe walk in coolers is the answer.