If you were a celebrated fine dining chef known for your work in some of Southern California's trendiest restaurants, and then as the culinary driver behind one of the college segment's signature dining programs, what would you do for an encore?
Well, if you're Mark Baida, CEC, CCA, you become a “lunch lady.”
That is the gag tag Baida says chef friends have ribbed him with since he took on his new position as the first-ever executive chef for the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the job is no laughing matter, and Baida's commitment is serious indeed.
At LAUSD, Baida is responsible for culinary operations and menu development for a district with a quarter million students — or “customers,” as he prefers to call them. For many, he is quick to point out, the school meal is their only hot meal of the day, and he feels a strong responsibility to make it a tasty and nutritious one.
Baida signed on at LAUSD last fall and, in tandem with Director Dennis Barrett and Deputy Director David Binkle, is determined to overhaul and upgrade dining in the country's second-largest school district to make it one of the best school foodservices in the country. LAUSD serves more than 500,000 school meals daily at more than 700 sites in a 700-square mile radius.
The volume and scale — nevermind the operational, fiscal and political challenges — dwarf anything Baida experienced previously in a celebrated career in which he has rubbed shoulders with movie stars and rock gods (as executive chef at the Los Angeles Music Center he catered several Academy Awards and MTV Awards shows as well as numerous gala openings and other gatherings of the Hollywood glitterati).
In his restaurant career, Baida worked in five-diamond establishments and five-star hotels — he was one of the youngest ever chefs of a five diamond/four star restaurant at the Scottsdale Princess — while working with the likes of Michael Roberts (Trumps), Piero Selvaggio and Luciano Pellegrini (Valentino/Posto), Jean Francois Meteigner (Cicada/LaCachette) and David Slay (La Veranda).
He then migrated to the University of Southern California, where as executive chef overseeing residential, retail and catering operations for eight years, he was instrumental in helping to elevate USC Dining into one of the country's premier college foodservices.
Why did you take this on?
Granted, K-12 is uncharted waters for me, but then so was college/university. But the opportunity to educate and introduce new cuisines and experiences not to hundreds, as in restaurants, or even thousands, as at USC, but to hundreds of thousands, is very appealing and exciting. Basically, I get to develop the palates of the future.
It's certainly a challenge…
Certainly, I'm not cooking racks of lamb or serving foie gras or caviar, but as a culinary chef, it's a thousand times more challenging than cooking a fine dining meal in a restaurant with a team of 25 cooks. There isn't a restaurant in the country that could serve 3,000 kids in 30 minutes like we must. A good portion of my role is r&d, and because of the volume, I also need to work with major vendors. But it all starts with me in kitchen working with real food. In addition, face time is key — with kids and staff, but also with city officials, community groups, parents and media.
What have you done so far?
We've developed a concept called the Chef's Signature Series, which is our way of introducing students and faculty to a more culinary/hospitality direction. The Series emphasizes packaging, taste, smell, colors and textures. They are designed to be limited-time offers of specially developed menu items — just like the chains have. How long they run depends on how much the customers accept them. The first one is a Chicken Italiano Melt that launches in April.
And down the line?
Down the line I want to try things like dim sum and room service to classrooms. Because this is such a diverse district, I also want to talk with parents about dishes they make at home and see if some of those can be adapted to our program as well. I also want to develop menus — and perhaps even a coffee program — for the faculty. They have a very tough job and they are often forgotten.
You must have vivid memories of your days in the heyday of the California restaurant scene…
I put in about 15 years and it was great. Everybody was in the restaurants for the art and the passion. Of course, I also got to meet a lot of famous people and interact with them on a human level. It wasn't uncommon to see Iman and David Bowie, for example, and have a conversation about kids.
What's your food philosophy?
Simple elegance. It's taking simple ingredients, simple food and doing it right. I don't come from the foam world. I don't want to be looking at a dish and be saying, ‘What the heck is it?’”
Most memorable “restaurant” experience: eating/drinking his way across Japan, from sidewalk stands to fine dining in hotels
Favorite contemporary fine dining restaurant: ”Providence” in Los Angeles
Favorite dishes simple elegance style: sushi/fish, noodles/pasta, beef and lamb
Favorite dishes to prepare at home: risotto, osso buco, pan-roasted seafood/fish