Renowned chef focuses on creating healthy cafeteria food

EDMONTON –She’s an award-winning chef and the former owner of Highlands Kitchen, and now Cindy Lazarenko is using her culinary skills in a different way: making healthy lunches for inner city students.

When she was approached by Highlands School Principal Brad Burns about the job, she didn’t really have to think twice.

“As soon as he said it, I think I knew I was going to say yes.”

“I’ve always enjoyed feeding children,” Lazarenko said. “I think what I like is just introducing these foods to children, and even if they don’t eat it the first time or the second time, eventually it’s going to become a little more familiar to them.”

Two years ago, Lazarenko sold her Edmonton restaurant to focus on her young family.  She explains coming up with creative meal ideas for her children is great practice for her work.

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“It’s like they’re my kids,” she explained, “what would I make for my kids?”

Her job is made a little more challenging because all of the ingredients are donated.

“Different from her work as a chef in a restaurant, she has to respond to what comes in,” explained Burns. “She’ll get food from the Food Bank and she’ll look to see what it is, and rather than just preparing it just how it comes, she changes it and turns it into phenomenal recipes.”

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Burns says – using other sources – Lazarenko is able to supplement the donated food with spices and additional fresh produce.

Metis Child and Family Services received a grant from Enbridge to hire a cafeteria staff member for Highlands school, and the food is supplied by the Food Bank, Food For Thought, and Fruit for a Friend.

“She’s always very creative,” he said. “She’s using all that knowledge – and not preparing adult food or restaurant food – but preparing of a high quality that they’re able to access and move forward with.”

“They’re being educated as well as they eat, and the choices are always healthy.”

Lazarenko embraces the test.

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“It’s challenging, but also, really fun.”

“I can write a list – my wish list – of things I hope come my way, but if they don’t I just have to make do.”

“She actually disassembles pre-packaged or processed food and recreates recipes with the ingredients that exist within those,” added Burns. “She really likes to go back to non-processed, sourced food, and start with as fresh as possible.”

“If Kraft Dinner comes in, she doesn’t make Kraft Dinner. She uses the noodles to make real Mac and Cheese.”

On Wednesday, the main ingredient Lazarenko had to work with was two crates of Campbell’s soup.

“I added as many vegetables as I could,” she said with a grin. “I had zucchini that was donated from the community, we had… organic vegetable packets that came in from the Food Bank… and then I added homemade pesto… it was a delicious soup.”

For many students, a delicious – and nutritious – meal from the school is incredibly valuable.

“They’re coming with a high need for nutrition. It is a lower income that we draw from… so this is providing essential meals for a lot of those kids,” said Burns.

Lazarenko’s approach is a little closer to home.

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“I, basically, am making lunch in the same way that I would make lunch for my kids if I had those same ingredients.”

Her contribution is appreciated by her more than 65 ‘kids.’

“It’s delicious,” said Deken Saunders. “The meat is nice and tender, the rice is well cooked, it’s got a little bit of spice to it, but it’s good.”

“She takes a long time cooking it so it’s always good,” added Taylor Smith, “seems like it’s a home-cooked meal.”

“I think we’re the luckiest school in the city,” said Burns.  “The stars were aligned to have a known chef and restaurant owner in the community who had the time and the mission to want to be a part of it. It’s been unbelievable.”