Wichita schools’ top chef adds freshness to kids’ meals with ‘speed scratch’ cooking (+video)

When you’re making about 35,000 meals a day and trucking them to nearly 100 schools, speed is crucial.

But kids can be picky, and they prefer food made from scratch to preheated, reheated, vending-machine-quality fare.

So Andrew Terronez, head chef for the Wichita school district, looks for “speed scratch” options.

“Speed scratch is a way of taking one or two pre-made products, adding a little extra and combining them on-site to make it as fresh as possible for the kids,” Terronez said.

The district’s head chef debuted several new school lunch menu items Monday, including a teriyaki chicken noodle bowl, vegetarian alfredo pasta, chicken alfredo pasta, chicken fried rice and mini cheeze calzones. They’ll be added to the menu as students return to school cafeterias throughout Wichita this week.

Grace Liss, a supervisor in the district’s nutrition services department, said menu planners tried to develop a teriyaki noodle bowl – “something inspired by Noodles and Co.” – for several years. But they couldn’t find the right products to meet the district’s wish list: something that assembles easily, heats quickly, tastes good and meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strict calorie limits and other nutrition requirements for school meals.

Then they discovered a premade, bagged teriyaki sauce, Liss said. Terronez developed a recipe combining the sauce with whole-grain spaghetti noodles, broccoli and carrots and topped with grilled chicken nuggets.

“We like to take what we can out into the community. … We run it by kids, let them taste it, gather their feedback,” Terronez said. “The Asian foods and flavors have been a big hit.”

Vegetarian alfredo pasta will be one of several meat-free items on Wichita school menus this year. Every day at every Wichita school, there will be at least one vegetarian option, Terronez said.

“School food gets a bad rap. I don’t know why,” he said. “I eat it every day. … If we’re sending it out to kids, we should be eating it too, and I do. I eat a school lunch every day. I enjoy it.”

Wichita middle and high schools this year will feature “build your own” lunches with themes such as Mexican, Italian, Asian, burger and picnic.

On build-a-burger day, for example, students will get a ground-beef patty on a whole-grain bun, which they can top with any extras they choose: American cheese, pepper jack cheese, jalapeno peppers, banana peppers, Cajun mayo, sriracha, tomatoes, pickles and more. On Italian day, students can top whole-grain spaghetti with beef meatballs or roasted chicken and then choose a sauce – marinara or alfredo – and add extras such as California vegetables.

Middle and high schools also will feature a breakfast pizza this year – whole-grain flatbread topped with country gravy, scrambled eggs, sausage and mozzarella cheese.

Other new menu items for the 2015-16 school year include: salisbury steak, rolled beef tacos, twisted cheese bread sticks, cheese pizza pockets, chicken noodle soup, cheesy hot dogs, crispy rice treats (made with whole-grain brown rice), apple muffin tops, roasted sweet potatoes, creamy cheesy mac, Southwest salad, egg rolls and kale salad.

Terronez, who worked at the Wichita Masonic Home and in various restaurants before taking the job with Wichita schools last year, will have a little added pressure this year: His 5-year-old daughter will start kindergarten at a Wichita elementary school.

“I’ll hear about it if it’s not good,” he said.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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