Interview with Andrew Benson, Executive Chef and Director of Food Services and Founding Member of ScratchWorks
Founding members of ScratchWorks Nancy Easton and Andrew Benson sat down to talk about the importance of scratch cooking. Nancy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools, interviewed Andrew, Executive Chef and Director of Food Services, to learn from his many experiences in the kitchen.
Andrew Benson was raised in Queens and attended NYC public schools. His father is very interested in food and did all of the cooking when Andrew was young – mostly Sephardic dishes, but also Greek, Italian and Chinese! Thanks to his Dad’s interest, Andrew was surrounded by food as a child. His mother was a calligrapher and an artist. In her 50’s, she changed her career to become a librarian. Raised in a creative household where food was important, at an early age he appreciated the colors, presentation and design of food and essentially, all that was related to food.
Andrew had his first job at 13 in a bagel store. At 15, he began cooking in a restaurant. He was not interested in traditional academics and went to Johnson and Wales for an A.S. In culinary and B.A. in food marketing. He was always interested in understanding why people think the way they do about food.
Before and during Johnson and Wales, Andrew worked in various restaurants and hotels in NYC and then in Rhode Island. After graduating, Andrew began working with a start-up food marketing company. His first client was a sushi production company. He loved that because he was able to indulge in sushi everyday!
Andrew then worked in NYC as a school food manager before transitioning to Community Food Resource Center where he developed recipes, taught cooking classes to low income adults, and transformed a soup kitchen into a scratch facility.
Nancy Easton: What inspired you to get into school food, and what drives your passion for this work?
Andrew Benson: What originally drove me to this work was what city schools were feeding children. I grew up in the city schools (Queens); I wanted to be able to educate kids’ minds and palettes and especially in lower income communities, to give them exposure and interest in other cultural flavors outside of their community. My goals are twofold: 1) to feed healthy meals; and 2) to educate the mind and the palette so that when my students get older they will be more apt to make educated and healthy decisions about their food choices.
Nancy: What role do you see school food playing in the community in which you work?
Andrew: I work in low income communities and for most of the kids, the meals we serve are their main and sometimes only meals. The meals we offer are generally the most healthy meals that they would have available on a daily basis. That says it all.
Nancy: What stands out the most to you and what are you most proud of what you have been able to accomplish?
- Working with kids, you do not see the immediate change. You get that “aha” moment 10 years down the road when they come back to you and say, “now I understand why you wanted me to eat Swiss chard, or having knowledge of various cuisines helped me to make healthier food choices in college.” It is a long term gain. It is ultimately life changing, but not immediate.
- By having direct and ongoing contact with cooks, I am able to also teach them culinary skills and educate them around cuisine. This work has offered school cooks, who are typically mom and dads from the community more opportunity in this field; we help to develop their skill towards a career, not just a job.
Nancy: In relation to COVID, have you seen an increase in food insecurity or need in your community since the start of the pandemic?
Andrew: When covid first hit, there was a real fear about where food was going to come from. Now, I think it is much more than covid – it is now an economic issue. With inflation, getting a meal on the table is incredibly costly. The main impact of covid is now not as much about food, but about labor and the challenges associated with returning to work in a new environment.
Nancy: You have been cooking from scratch since you started working as a food service director. Can you think back to when you started (18 years ago) and share what your priorities were to begin a scratch program?
Andrew: My singular focus, as early as my days in the soup kitchen, was to get away from processed food. As a director, you must identify your mission and remain committed with no compromises. Kids are not going to eat the first healthy meal you give them. You must be creative, passionate and persevere in order to be successful. It is not for the faint of heart.
Besides understanding food and seasonality, the single most important aspect to running a scratch operation is working to find the best team that is willing to go on the journey with you. Then, the training program and maintaining a culture of excellence is key. When looking for a team, I am willing to work with and train anyone as long as they are willing to learn and grow with us and be willing to cook different cultures of food. We spend a good deal of time investing in the person and establishing a culture that draws the right people.
Another important piece is procurement. It is important to find and build relationships with farmers or processing plants who can do work that we cannot and yet, still meet our standards. For example, the cattle farmer who prepares beef cuts for us or the local Queens company who cuts farm fresh produce at the specs that we need and saves labor for us. These are critical time and cost saving measures that support a scratch kitchen.
However, in the end, getting the food on the plate and balancing the budget are relatively easy. It is all about the people.
Nancy: You work in a small district. You operate two schools with a total of just over 2,000 students. Is your model scalable to a large district? If so, how?
Andrew: YES! The sheer volume of larger districts creates more buying power. The training model then becomes your most important area of focus.