School cafeteria cook sees her work as ministry

Pam Duplessis feels there are few things more important than feeding a child a good, healthy meal.

So whenever Duplessis gets wind of others taking for granted the role of the school cafeteria cook – a profession she has embraced for 27 years – she is quick to remind them that her and her colleagues’ work is a very noble calling.

Cooking is a genuine vocation, a very serious ministry, and not merely “a job,” notes Duplessis, 60.

“When my own kids were growing up, if we didn’t have the finer things in life, we always had a meal,” said Duplessis, a food technician and cook with School Food and Nutrition Services of New Orleans, who prepares the daily lunch entrée for more than 300 students at her home base of Academy of the Sacred Heart Elementary, and for two “satellite” locations served by Sacred Heart’s kitchen: The Good Shepherd School and Holy Rosary School.

“(As a young mother), I noticed that so many children weren’t having dinner at home,” Duplessis said. “That made me think, my job is a great job; it’s a very important job.”

Duplessis’ happy workdays run from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., beginning with the wiping down of all of her kitchen equipment – the oven, stove, braiser and steamer – to catch anything that might have accumulated after the previous day’s washing.

“Our kids’ favorite entrées are tacos, meatballs or meat sauce and spaghetti, shepherd’s pie and red beans,” said Duplessis, noting that students get a daily choice of a hot lunch or sandwich, but overwhelmingly opt for the former.

Some of her school cafeteria observations might surprise people.

“Sometimes, our students will pass on dessert – the cookies and the brownies – but they like their vegetables and their fruits,” Duplessis said.
“They eat cauliflower, broccoli, green beans and carrots, (either) glazed or in a carrot soufflé. They also like the little raw carrots dipped in ranch dressing.”

Another recent hit was when Duplessis seasoned catfish fillets and chilled them overnight before dredging them in cornmeal and lightly frying them. The fish was served with macaroni and cheese, glazed carrots and a dinner roll.

“They loved the catfish, but they didn’t care for the fish sticks as much when we served them,” Duplessis said, smiling.

Duplessis, who was raised in Uptown New Orleans, learned to cook from her grandmother and aunt. She began her cooking career in the kitchen of the now-closed Flint-Goodridge Hospital on Louisiana Avenue, spending seven years there preparing meals tailored to patients on special diets such as low-sodium or low-fat.

Duplessis was working part-time at a local diner when a friend told her about School Food and Nutrition Services. Duplessis came on board in 1990, spending her first 25 years in the cafeteria of Ursuline Academy. She is currently in her second year at Academy of the Sacred Heart.

“I just fell in love with the job,” said Duplessis, who loves nothing more than when students return to the cafeteria line for seconds. “I enjoy talking with the kids and watching them eat. When a child is happy and they say, ‘I love that food,’ that makes me happy. Food is the most important thing that we all need, because without it we wouldn’t be able to function!”

At home in her family kitchen, Duplessis’ five grown children and 13 grandchildren request her chicken – fried or stewed – her red beans and her smothered potatoes with smoked sausage.

As Duplessis raised her own kids, she saw the value in cooking with fresh or frozen ingredients – “which last longer than going to buy a lot of processed, canned food” – as a money-stretcher.

Duplessis admits she breaks her own fresh-only rule by using a jar of prepared Alfredo sauce in a Lenten Friday – and year-round – family favorite: her quick and easy shrimp pasta.

“You add your cooked pasta into your sauce at the end and serve it family style,” she said. “The crab boil brings out the flavor. The sauce is thick and creamy.”

Although raised Baptist, Duplessis became accustomed to abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays as a student at Holy Ghost Elementary and Xavier Prep. Her Lenten tips include adding “the right touch” of Parmesan cheese to any meatless red gravy as it simmers, and bulking up the gravy with vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower.

Duplessis also uses a trick she learned at School Food and Nutrition Services, whose recipes adhere to federal nutrition guidelines: She mixes together equal parts of cooked brown and white rice to add flavor, texture and vitamins to her plate.

Another thing Duplessis is big on: cooking vegetable “seasoning” very slowly to bring out maximum flavor before adding it to beans and stews – and never simply throwing in these ingredients in their raw state.

Even when Duplessis makes beef or pork ribs, she will slice bell peppers and onions, lay the rings atop her seasoned meat, refrigerate them overnight and then add a little water to the pan before placing the ribs in the oven. This way, the vegetables’ flavors slowly “steam” into the meat as it cooks.

There is also the bonus of eating these stewed vegetables with your barbeque, she said.

“Simmering is the best thing you can do,” Duplessis said. “Never rush your cooking! It makes a big difference!”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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