Chef’s Roll community member Brent Mercado isn’t cooking for the accolades. He doesn’t have any problem with those who do. But he cooks for a different reason, (and a wildly different audience), than many chefs working today. He’s a school chef, and he really hopes he’s a lot different from the school chefs YOU remember growing up!
When most people think about the culinary arts, they usually don’t think about a school chef! Tell us about your journey. Did you ever think you’d end up cooking primarily for kids?
I never imagined I’d be cooking for schoolchildren!
My love for food began with my dad. He was a single father and an AMAZING cook. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen watching him cook, in awe of how he would make such great meals out of the little bit that we had. He even made “government food” taste good!
I started as a pot washer at a hospital. From there, I watched and learned every day until I worked my way up to line cook at a few chain restaurants. I was always eager to learn and quick to be humble, so my big break came when I got hired as a line cook on the Garde Manger of the a la cart restaurant at Hyatt Regency in Jersey City, NJ. I worked my way to a cooking position at the Marriott in Princeton, where I met my then-boss, now dear friend, Malachi. He helped me develop my own style of cooking; he helped me see the beauty in our craft, the joy we can receive from creating a dish that invites an experience. My experiences led me to some great places, from steak houses, seafood restaurants, to dining rooms in corporate offices, to a TPC-sponsored country club.
The variety of kitchens I’ve worked in really helped broaden my horizons and encouraged me to experiment with food. After working at the country club for a while, the schedule started to get to me. I never got the chance to see my friends, and more importantly, my family. Around the time I was getting married, the opportunity came to work in schools. I took a decent pay cut, but the schedule was amazing. Plus, I LOVE KIDS! The big shock was that the food was totally different, as was the skill level of the staff. I had to learn how to simplify everything I knew. My first school was on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). There were so many restrictions. The worst one: we weren’t allowed to use salt. I mean, who doesn’t use salt? Nonetheless, I managed. Eventually, I was promoted to Executive Chef of another school district. Three years later, and I’m now in Holmdel, NJ, working for the public school district. It’s amazing! School food has challenged me on how to think outside the box more and be quicker on my feet. I thank God for the opportunities I’ve had and believe that He has me where I’m needed, where He thinks I can make the biggest impact.
How much flexibility do you really have when it comes to creating the menu at a school?
When I was on the NSLP, really none. There were too many restrictions. Every detail was measured out by the company. Now that I’m in one of 25 schools in the country (in my company) not on the NSLP, the sky is the limit as long as I’m within our budget. It’s been a freeing experience; I can think of and experiment with how to really make an impact on school lunch and make it great. We’ve done a lot of cool things for our schools. My Director, Craig Lanzner, is a Great Boss and also a foodie and trusts my style of food. He looks over the menu every month and says, “Good, lets go!” I also try to use the National Day calendar as a way to keep the menus fun.
What are some of the most adventurous plates you’ve put together for the kids?
I’ve been trying to focus on fun and interesting food. Some of our recent menus included:
- Ribs with a Pomegranate Blueberry BBQ Sauce and Roasted Corn, with Feta Cheese and Rosemary
- Steak Tacos with Roasted Rosemary Watermelon Salsa
- Vegetable Taco with Toasted Cumin and Chipotle Sweet Potato Puree, with Roasted Kale, Feta Cheese, & Sour Cream on a White Corn Tortilla
- Roasted Chicken with Rosemary Honey and Roasted Beets, Yukon Gold Potatoes, and Sweet Potatoes with Corn Bread
- An homage to one of my favorite places to eat in NYC, the Meatball Shop
- Chicken and Waffles. We made a Cinnamon Whipped Cream and plated it in a fun way
Do the kids appreciate the fresh produce and seasonal menu?
I think they do, based on their response to our Instagram page (@holmdelhive). I make sure to take time to chat with the students, getting feedback or ideas about our food. They’re my clients; they’re the reason I’m here. They’ve definitely noticed the difference in quality, and ask why I wasn’t working there sooner. I’m working on bringing a small-scale farmers’ market to our district. My mission is to introduce new produce to the kids and improve their palates by including the new fruits and veggies in the menu.
What are your culinary ambitions? Why do you cook?
Sometimes I dream of owning and operating my own small 20-seater or a food truck. Being that I didn’t finish culinary school, I can feel inadequate at times about reaching those goals, but cooking makes me happy. I love being able to translate my thoughts and emotions into a dish. I love making people smile. I love people; especially kids. If I stayed in schools for the rest of my career, I would be content, because I know that I’ll always be making a difference in at least one person’s day.
I cook because it’s the way I stay connected to my father. I enjoyed watching him cook all my life. All the food I make is a twist on a memory I have with my dad, or a story he had told me. Ever since he passed away 5 years ago, I told myself I would honor him with my craft. Food is love what my father did best was love me. I want people to feel the love I have for food, and for them. What better way than to break bread together?
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just… my hope is that more talented chefs would be willing to give of themselves to help school districts realize that better food could mean better attitudes, better test grades, more attentiveness in class. My daughter is going to be in a school one day and I hope her experience with food in school isn’t like mine was growing up. I hope she has a chef in her school district that cares enough about kids to be the change.