Chef Grassi turns school lunch room into the Tuxedo Café

Tuxedo. The new school district head chef tries to turn the George F. Baker High School kitchen into a restaurant every day.

| 06 Mar 2023 | 11:25

Around 10 o’clock each school day, kitchen aromas begin wafting through the hallways of George F. Baker High School. Since December, the smell has been more reminiscent of a Texas Barbecue or New York Pizzeria than that of a school cafeteria. Then again, chef Anthony Grassi is not your typical school district head chef, nor is he expected to be.

“When coming aboard and speaking with [Tuxedo Union Free School District Superintendent] Jeff [White], he had this grand idea to turn the program into a restaurant,” Grassi said. “And I fell in love with that idea. Now daily I am just trying to bring it to that level.”

A veteran of the restaurant business, Grassi has worn several hats throughout his career; everything from prep cook to owner to director of operations. But he finds the immediate feedback, and blatant honesty of children, unique to cooking at a school. “One of the best parts about it are the daily accolades you get talking to the students and hearing about what they like and what they don’t like,” he said.

Grassi takes it all into consideration when creating a menu of what he defines simply as “good food” that he would want prepared for his own family. Gone are the days of frozen fish sticks, or an unseasoned chicken patty on a bun. On a recent visit to the “Tuxedo Café,” as Superintendent White calls it, Grassi was slathering barbecue sauce on hot pieces of baked chicken.

“You know, we are always trying to push it. Even pizza day. I change it up every week. Give them something different. A unique style of dough from a different region of Italy.”

Taste is not the only thing that makes food “good,” for Grassi. It comes down to the ingredients and variety of offerings. “Being a school district you, we are required to give them certain types of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat every day, and I try to keep it creative,” he said.

That is why alongside the hot food serving station are yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit, salads and fresh cold cuts layered under whole grain breads. Plenty of options for everyone.

“I do have a couple of dietary restrictions that I plan for every day. Everything from sesame seeds down to gluten and peanut allergies. I try to make sure I consider everyone, and if I can’t get it in the daily meal, I definitely have a plan back up for them,” Grassi said.

Working with Grassi is consultant Mary Anne Metzak, who was brought on last year after a student-run survey about the state of the food being served in the district. The entire student body responded, and it was clear they wanted to see changes in the cafeteria. Metzak has also overseen the additions of new equipment in the George F. Baker kitchen including a new oven range, stoves and vending machines.

Superintendent White has been excited with what he has seen, and tasted, so far. “The students are going home and telling their parents about the food and how good it is. Everything has been very impressive and I look forward to what is next,” he said.

For Chef Anthony, this is only the beginning.

“I want to see 100% participation with staff and students. I would like to see the program grow and turn this into an award-winning kitchen. There is no reason we can’t,” he said.