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School Lunch, Chef Bobo Style

On a recent trip to New York City, NPR's Michele Norris enjoyed this menu at a West Side eatery: salmon with orange soy glaze, tomato goat cheese baguettes and steamed asparagus with mustard shallot vinaigrette.

"But you won't find any waiters or white table cloths here, because this is actually the monthly menu for a school cafeteria," Norris says. The lucky students attend The Calhoun School, an elite private school where the head cook happens to be a world-class chef.

Robert Surles -- AKA Chef Bobo -- is a teacher at the city's famed French Culinary Institute. He also runs his own catering business and is the official chef for the Krewe of Orpheus in New Orleans, a Mardi Gras parade group founded by jazz musician and entertainer Harry Connick Jr. And he still finds time to be baseball star Derek Jeter's personal chef.

He was hired by Calhoun to combat a common dilemma: the daily dietary disaster called school lunch.

"What seemed like an unlikely pairing -- a French chef who resembles Santa Claus, and 650 finicky students -- has turned out to be a match made in heaven," Norris says.

"School lunches are no longer the butt of bad jokes. The students devour everything in the lunch line, even Chef Bobo's special recipe -- rutabagas."

Chef Bobo believes the best way to ensure that adults eat well is to develop an appetite for healthy foods early in life. Children, he says, will eat nutritious foods -- even the vegetables -- if they are cooked in such a way that they taste good.

"We have bold, bold flavor," Surles says. "That's our motto. Nutrition, bold flavor -- and keeping costs down."

With few exceptions, all items are made from scratch -- the salad dressings, the sauces, even the bread. No chicken nuggets, no frozen entrees, no mystery meat -- and until recently, no ketchup. Surles forced the children to actually taste the food before adding ketchup.

Calhoun's lunches cost about $3 per meal -- similar to the budget for many public school lunch programs. He saves money by serving smaller portions and making sure little goes to waste.

But Surles knows his transformation of Calhoun lunches isn't easy to duplicate. Most schools -- especially public schools -- buy in bulk and rely on pre-cooked ingredients.

"Chef Bobo hopes the outside world will see his experiment as more than just an extravagance at a well-heeled Manhattan school," Norris says. "He hopes that educators and parents take notice -- because as he sees it, he's cooking up a revolution, one rutabaga fry at a time."

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