It's 11:20 a.m. and Brad Grafton is in the middle of grilling up some tortilla shells at Boyd-Buchanan School.
All around him in the tight, close quarters of the kitchen, 10 other cooks are stepping over and around each other, preparing lunch for 1,000 K-12 students, all of whom will be fed during three lunch periods over a two-hour span.
Today is taco Thursday, the first of the school year, and the taco bar is supposed to be open only to students in third grade and up. The first- and second-graders aren't having it, however, they want tacos. Once a line starts, it quickly grows.
Grafton, food service director with Sage Dining Services, the company that prepares meals at the school, notices the just-formed line around the taco stand.
"I got 100 second-graders in line for tacos," Grafton says to no one in particular. "Do we have enough chicken? And beef?"
There is a slight tone of panic in his voice, or maybe it's amusement, but this is not the first curveball Grafton has been thrown in a kitchen.
He was executive chef at the Bluff View Art District for five years, at the Fairyland Club on Lookout Mountain for 13 years and at Enzo's for two years prior to it changing staff and direction earlier this summer. In fact, three fellow Enzo's cooks are now on staff at Boyd-Buchanan.
Well over six feet tall, Grafton seems to have a perpetual smile on his face, and his eyes flit around the room, making sure things are getting done but also looking for the next opportunity to joke with one of the staff.
"We have a good time," Grafton says.
His impact has been felt already, says Head of School Jill Hartness. Boyd-Buchanan allows parents to have lunch with their students for a small fee and nearly 100 have done so since school started Aug. 12.
"I have parents stop me in the parking lot to tell me how surprised they were to learn their child tried something new. And liked it," she says. "Board members have been coming by to eat also.
"It is neat seeing Chef Brad talking to the kids and the learning has been exponential already," she says. "There is a new energy in the lunch room."
Grafton says he enjoys getting out into the lunch room to talk food with the students, and he plans to hold a food-oriented class or workshop once a month.
While he is roasting vegetables on this particular day, a second-grader returns to the hot-plate line with his bowl of pasta. Just able to see over the counter, the boy holds up his cup and says incredulously to the server, "It doesn't have any cheese on it." In the background, Grafton smiles and says, "That kid will be a chef one day."
This is Grafton's first gig cooking for school kids, and he's reveling in the challenge. Anyone with kids knows what it can be like to find foods that a finicky eater might like; in a school kitchen, multiply that by 1,000. Throw in food allergies and it gets even trickier.
"It's a huge issue," Grafton says. "Everything we do is basically gluten-free. I got in an order of sesame seeds the other day and, even though it said, 'Prepared in a nut free environment,' I sent it back."
But the biggest challenge, he says is the sheer volume.
"It is very different because it is bulk," says Tom Goetz, the head chef at Girls Preparatory School whose 32-year career includes owning his own catering business and restaurant. "In the restaurant, you cook to order. Here, everything has to be prepared ahead and ready to go. Like, right now we are doing 400 chicken Parmesans. It's about timing, and it's a big mentality shift."
Very few restaurants see 1,000 customers per day, and at Boyd-Buchanan, every student eats a lunch prepared by the staff. Sage provides recipes and menus, but it allows its chefs to introduce their own, pre-approved changes and ideas.
"I can adjust and take things away, but I can't add new ingredients," Grafton says.
On the job less than a month, Grafton says he plans to submit his own recipes to Sage, and he plans to introduce breakfasts soon. For special school functions such as meetings, tailgating parties and staff dinners, he is free to create his own menu.
Introducing students to healthy foods they might think they would not like is his favorite part of the new job, Grafton says. In addition to the tacos, the staff is also preparing radiatori pasta and chicken and dumplings.
"I put green peas in the chicken and dumplings. Some of the staff that was here before said, 'They won't eat it now,'" Grafton says with a laugh, but admits putting carrots into a lasagna that was not as well received as he hoped.
As he's talking, he's coating zucchini and squash halves with olive oil, then roasting them on the grill. Once cooked, they get cut into cubes and tossed with a little sea salt and garlic oil.
"No, this is nothing like the lunches we had growing up. Everything is fresh and local whenever possible," he says. "I never in my life thought I would be ordering pre-cut broccoli, but you have to make some concessions."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.