Brendan Ryan looks small next to the 14-foot-high sunflower plants growing in a garden at the Framingham (MA) High School courtyard. But Ryan, Framington’s director of nutrition services, is a giant when it comes to providing innovative culinary ideas and fresh menu items for the 8,200-student school district.
Ryan, a former executive chef for Harvard University Dining Services and senior culinarian for contract catering firm Restaurant Associates, now runs the foodservice program for Framingham and is busy bringing the same ethos he lived with Harvard and RA to a public school program.
That means from-scratch cooking, fresh ingredients and imaginative menus. Ryan proudly reports that about 70 percent of meals are now cooked from scratch, a big departure from when he joined the district five years ago.
“It not only tastes better and fresher but I can also regulate the ingredients,” Ryan notes. “For example, we make our own meatballs instead of buying them, and that way we control things like the sodium content.”
The garden, which Ryan admits is at least partly a “marketing tool” (it can be seen from many of the school’s classroom windows, for example), has also produced an impressive amount of ingredients for the lunch program. Fruit from the nearly 350 plum tomato plants and herbs from the 120 basil plants in the garden were used to make about a thousand gallons of tomato sauce last year, for example.
Basil, tomatoes, olive oil and a little garlic are pureed and then combined with USDA commodity tomato paste to produce a versatile sauce that gets “a huge flavor boost” from the freshly grown ingredients, Ryan says. It is made in bulk when the tomato harvest is at its peak and then frozen in cook-chill bags for later use.
The garden grows Marzano tomatoes, a variety that takes well to the climate and yields a low-moisture fruit perfect for the sauce making application. The yield was so bountiful that Framingham didn’t have to buy commercial tomatoes until late in the spring term last year.
Ryan's initiative has energized the campus. Last October, 160 students, from jocks to nerds, worked side by side on a Saturday morning tilling, weeding and laying down compost.