Local chefs are teaming up with Denver Public Schools to bring kids less mystery meat

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Beginning this week, Carmelo Anthony's personal chef Daniel Young, Whole Foods Rocky Mountain Bakehouse head baker Safa Hamze and other local chefs and professionals are strutting their kitchen skills as part of a new Denver Public Schools program that will incorporate produce from school gardens and reduce the amount of processed foods in school lunches.

The three-week program, which kicked off on Wednesday, emphasizes from-scratch cooking, and includes demonstrations by Young and former Project Angel Heart chef Adam Fisher on knife skills, handling raw meat and salad bar creation. Other classwork, featuring the expertise of other local culinary professionals, will focus on baking and cold food preparation.

"We've always baked a lot of our own bread and cinnamon rolls and such, but now we're getting into raw meats and even more scratch cooking," says Leo Lesh, DPS executive director of food services and nutrition.

Many Denver Public School children will soon have access to a salad bar, more fruits and veggies, grass-fed beef and vegetarian meal options prepared by workers using their newly-acquired skills. Close to 30 schools will become "scratch-cooking sites" as a result of the program, Lesh says, and when the calendar year starts in August, 87 schools will have a salad bar, while grass-fed beef will be served in all of the district's high schools and available one day a month in other schools.

What else can the kids expect to eat? "We'll be baking bread for homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and serving chile relleno quiche for breakfast and homemade burritos with our own sauce and seasonings," says Lesh. The district will also begin making its own sauces and gravies.

Eventually, food service workers will be required to complete the training -- which includes instruction in food safety and knife handling skills -- as a condition of employment. The program enrolled 120 volunteers for its inaugural debut.

"I was excited that we had as many people as we did volunteer," Lesh says. "We've always had really good nutrition, but now we'll be able to do things from scratch and go grass-fed and hormone-free and stop using dyes."

Funding for the program comes out of the food and nutrition service's own budget, which does not include anything from Denver Public Schools. The plan was hatched by Lesh and his staff about a year and a half ago and has been in the works ever since. "We thought this year was the right time, and we had the supervisory staff in place that could do this," he says.

Will the kids be on board with grass-fed beef and fresh roughage? "I don't know how the kids are going to react," he admits. "They're used to eating fast food. It's going to be a struggle. I still only have 20-25 minutes to serve hundreds."

In addition to Young, Fisher and Hamze, participating culinary professionals include Great Harvest Bread Company owner Matt Salis and Rita Hamburg, a recent graduate of the Nutrition Therapy Institute.

The cooking program, which takes place at Bruce Randolph School, Henry World Middle School, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval School and Rishel Middle School, continues through July 30.

For more information about the program, call 720-423-3627.

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