A certified executive chef who has won more than 20 medals in culinary competitions, Costa Magoulas is a recent inductee into the American Culinary Federation's honor society, the American Academy of Chefs, and a 2001 recipient of the ACF's highly prestigious President's Medallion. He currently serves as president of his ACF chapter and is one of its most active and popular members.
His day job: coordinator of culinary operations for the Volusia County (FL) School District, a title he has held for the past 11 years.
Magoulas not only works for the public schools rather than some exclusive white-tablecloth restaurant, but loves his job, which entails testing new equipment, potential new products and proposed school lunch recipes; troubleshooting problems and overseeing operations at school sites (he has about 18 he is directly responsible for); and teaching cooking classes to district staffers. For the latter assignment, he himself developed the curriculum for the 12-week course, which covers everything from cooking techniques to proper HACCP food safety procedures.
Born in Charleston, SC, and raised in Daytona Beach, FL, Magoulas was imbued with a love of food from the get go. His ethnic Greek family included a number of chefs, including his father, who cooked on merchant marine ships and later opened a restaurant with two of his brothers.
Young Costas meandered through a couple of false career starts, including a brief flirtation with seminary and then two years at the Citadel military academy before finally landing a position with Smith & Sons Foods, an operator of commercial cafeterias and institutional dining rooms. The company gave him a thorough training in both the culinary and operational aspects of the foodservice world. He progressed from chef-steward to executive chef and then director of culinary training at the company's management training school
And he might still be with Smith & Sons but for a fateful night about 13 years ago...
What happened? I had been sent to a unit which was having some problems and was there when it was robbed. I was attacked and my back and neck were injured. It messed me up for about a year to the point where I couldn't even walk. I had to go through therapy and surgery. The company told me I wouldn't be able to work any more and put me on disability. I did that for about a year or two, during which time a friend who was a physical therapist worked with me. He did a great job and eventually began to feel a lot better.
Is that when you joined the school district? Another friend called and told me the school was looking for a professional to help with the school lunch program. I didn't know much about school foodservice but I looked into it and decided it was something I'd like to try.
So I went down there and applied. I was lucky enough to be hired so I walked away from disability and the insurance and everything else and took the job, and I've been with them ever since.
A lot of people would have just stayed with the disability checks rather than returning to work... I just couldn't sit at home. Our business is too high-paced, too high-energy. If you're an A personality a B personality life is a bore.
How old were you? I was about 36. I remember when I got the call that I was hired it was just before Christmas and it was the best Christmas present I could have had. I started on January 1st.
Of course, school foodservice doesn't involve a lot of really high-end culinary activities. Did that concern you? Actually, we been doing an increasing amount of catering, including very upscale events like the Futures fundraising dinners, which are something like $100 a plate and involve very sophisticated menus. Also, at one point our director suggested we get involved community activities like Putting on the Ritz, a fundraiser for the Children's Home Society that includes an annual culinary extravaganza and competition. Once we got involved in that we did fairly well, especially in the catering competition. Finally, one year we took "Best of Show," "Best Dessert" and a number of other top awards. People came up to us afterwarda and asked, "You're with who?" and we told them, the Volusia County School District!
What are your memories of school lunches? Actually, I loved them. My yearbooks were always signed by the cafeteria staff because I always appreciated what they do. I remember when I was in about the second grade my mother packed my lunch—peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, milk—and I sat down to eat it when I noticed these other kids eating these nice hot lunches that were served at the school. That was the last time I brought my lunch from home.
Your childhood sounds like the perfect setup for a culinary career. As a kid I was always surrounded by food and cooking. Most of my father's brothers were chefs and my mother was also a great cook. I remember Sundays we used to have the greatest meals because the merchant marine ships would come in and my father would know the chefs. They would come over and bring things like olive oil direct from Greece that came in wooden kegs and was thick like margarine so you'd have to spoon it out.
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