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Sean The Chef - Muse Elementary

This piece is from my wife, Charong Chow's food blog, Eating With Hudson. Muse is a remarkable school...

Sean Shepherd: Chef at Muse
Nestled in the hills of Topanga Canyon, California, is an extraordinary school called MUSE School CA. Inspired by the Italian Reggio educational philosophy, founders Suzy Amis-Cameron and Rebecca Amis wanted to create a school where minds and bodies were equally nourished.

Students hike through the 20 plus acre campus, use self-motivated, project-based learning, and meet in global councils, as part of a truly exceptional, child-led approach to learning.

MUSE students are truly "citizens of the world." They communicate and work with sister schools in New Zealand and Thailand, but at the same time they are completely in tune with their local community.

One of the aspects of the school that greatly impressed me was the fact that the school has a real chef who prepares nutritious daily meals and snacks on site for the students and staff.  

The oak-tree stage for councils and school events.

Recently, I met up with head chef and organic food specialist, Sean Shepherd, in the kitchen of MUSE to discuss the school's vision and his own food philosophies. 

Raised in East London, Sean came to the Los Angeles in 1992 with a transfer from Marriott Hotels. He soon began work as a private chef and was offered this position when his client founded this progressive school.

Sean is friendly, honest and down-to-earth. A father of a teenaged son himself, he is obviously much loved by the school community. Staff members pop into the kitchen to chat with him, all while he’s talking to me and mixing up a batch of scones for a school event.

Teachers tell me students adore him, and for good reason. He cooks delicious meals, plans colorful fun menus - and the children actually enjoy his salads!

When I told Hudson I was going to interview Sean, he requested I ask a couple questions for him, so I began our conversation with those. The first thing Hudson asked was, “How did Sean learn his job?”

Entrance to Muse Elementary in Topanga, California.
“I went to culinary school in London,” Sean replied. “I think it’s now called Newham University. I went full time for one year and then I went part time for two years. I'm still learning, there’s always something new. That's what I love about this. It’s like being an artist, always being creative and learning something new.”

Hudson also wanted to know, “Do you shop at the farmers' market?”

Sean told me, “Yes, the Santa Monica Farmer's Market on Wednesdays. The new Topanga market on Fridays, and sometimes a Saturday farmers’ market in Playa del Rey.“

Sean also told me about the school’s guidelines and food philosophies:

“I have control over the final menu but with guidelines that I have to stay within: organic, natural, local, seasonal, hardly any processed foods, no sugar, so salt, no colors or dyes.”

This is amazing in an age when everything at the supermarket is flown in from far away and so many things we call food bear little relation to actual fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

I asked Sean if he knew of other schools with chefs, because I couldn’t find much information about school chefs in the US.

Leftover food is composted for student gardens.

Sean thought that many schools may offer hot lunches - “but not what we are doing at MUSE. Others might doing mac and cheese, but we are offering smashed squash.”

The biggest question I had about was how could something like Chef Sean and MUSE School CA’s vision translate into a larger public school with smaller budgets?

The majority of children in the US go to large public schools, where the school lunches are low in nutrition and cooked in centralized kitchens.

Lunch at a Los Angeles Unified School costs students $1, and many low-income students receive free lunches. The low-income students are the ones suffering the most from this processed food, where many of the meats they use are graded lower than prison system food.

Optimistically, Chef Sean feels that public schools could definitely make the right kind of changes within their budgets to make the food healthier.

He handed me a Monday “breakfast for lunch” menu, which included pumpkin waffles, gluten free waffles, quinoa waffles, fruit compote rather than syrup, bacon, scrambled eggs, and sweet potato and regular potato hash.

“You aren’t going to get that at another school,” he said, and he’s probably right. “It couldn’t be so in-depth,” he continued. “Regular pumpkin waffle, and a quinoa waffle for someone who’s allergic to spelt or regular flour. You couldn’t do it at a regular school. You would price yourself out.”

“We go deeper here than anyone else, but on a bigger scale. You could go all organic or nothing fried, like tater tots, or you could bake them.  Baked tater tots are healthier. Changing a little bit can make a big difference, especially if you don’t have the money.  We have sweet potato fries, but they’re baked. And we use safflower oil or olive oil, but a minimum, it’s healthier.”

Children call the duck pond, "Watertown."

I asked Sean how he felt about Jamie Oliver descending upon Los Angeles.

“I think what Jamie’s doing is absolutely great. Anyone who is trying to revolutionize the school food world is a great thing. I don’t think he’s doing anything different than here. He’s finding healthier ways to do traditional food.

One of the things we do here, we try to give students their full allotments of vegetables and fruit during the school day. When I make a meat sauce for pasta, I’ll grind up tons of carrots, celery, onions…the dreaded onion! So when the kids are eating their meat sauce, they are in fact getting a full serving of vegetables at the same time.”

I asked Sean how he manages to get students to eat his salad – or “The eternal question,” as he called it.

“I don’t want to sound like a clichรฉ,” he said. “The key is to have great ingredients and also it’s good to have the students involved in some of the growing process.

They [the MUSE students] are out there growing lettuces, tomatoes, basil, beets.  If they are invested in it, it helps them try it. Also, it’s the salad dressing. If the salad dressings are good, the children are more inclined to try the lettuce, or tomatoes or cucumber. Plus colors. If everything is green, it’s not appealing to the eye. I always add grated carrots, cherry tomatoes. Bright colors attract the palate as well.”

I asked Sean about his own fourteen year old son.

“He’s a normal kid - likes French fries and burger, but by the same token, if he were getting seconds, he may get green beans and broccoli. He’s got a pretty good palate.”

I wondered what Sean’s own school food was like growing up in London, which used to have the reputation as capital of the worse country for food. Sean said, “In the early years it was horrible. Around 9th or 10th grade it got better. [The early years] made me want to have dessert and that’s about it.”

As Sean was finishing up his scones with spelt flour, he had me try his dairy-free Caesar salad dressing on some organic greens.

It was light and full of garlic and lemon. I tried not to guess what the secret ingredients were, but I could see why MUSE is very lucky to have a chef like Sean. He is able to create healthy food, and he is truly excited by feeding young children. He offers funny menu names like “Taco Tuesdays” and has so many options at lunch and snack that no child is left hungry.

As I finished up my salad, I asked Sean if he had any tips for parents. He came up with great advice for breakfast.

“Everyone leads busy lives and are rushing out the door in the morning and nobody wants to get up. Really try to keep the sugary cereals and heavy syrups in the morning to a minimum. You feed them [your child] at 7:30… and by 9:30, 10 o’clock; they feel like they drank a red bull! They’re running out of energy.  It’s because the sugar has spiked and they’re dropping.

It’s hard because everyone likes the sugary cereals, and they want pancakes and waffles with lots syrup. My tip is to keep them to a low. You are giving them a disservice. Their attention span starts to wander. They can’t concentrate as much… Have some protein, lightly scrambled egg, whole wheat toast…”

I had one last question before I left: I wanted to know what his favorite meal or even what his last meal would be.

“I like that question. That’s a question I like to ask people. My family is from the Caribbean. My favorite meals are oxtails, Jamaican style oxtails, and curried goat. Caribbean style rice and peas - peas are actually red beans or black eye peas.”
Hiking to upper campus and bamboo forest.

Driving back home, I starting envisioning more schools all with their own Chef Sean. Schools are places where children spend a lot of their time, and schools need to reinforce healthy eating. The CDC announced in 2010 that childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years and are asking schools for their support in teaching healthy eating plans.

MUSE and Chef Sean are nourishing the minds and bodies of their students, and I am hopeful in the future we will see more schools promoting healthy living that is good for children and the Earth. 

Written by Charong Chow. Originally posted at her blog, Eating With Hudson.


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