Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the Kitchen at TLS Duke

A conversation with Chef Justin and Chef Chris: By Monica Pallett

Justin Cole and Chris Burgess both came to The Little School from chef positions at some of the top restaurants in the Triangle.  Both share similar philosophies about food.  They believe in using fresh ingredients in every meal and sourcing those ingredients locally whenever possible.  Even though kids can be picky, they both feel strongly that kids can get used to many different types of foods if introduced to them regularly.  While they don’t believe in hiding ingredients – for example by pureeing vegetables and mixing them in a sauce – both chefs admit that getting kids to try new things, especially vegetables, can be a challenge.  “We have found that if you pick a kid-friendly food, such as spaghetti, you can include zucchini or mushrooms in the sauce and most kids will eat them,” said Justin.

Chris nodded and added, “My son started off at a more traditional daycare, not a high quality school like The Little School.  They served standard daycare fare – canned peaches, chicken nuggets, goldfish crackers, vanilla wafers.  We are still trying to undo the food preferences he developed because of that exposure.  Since coming to The Little School he has started to eat salad and couscous, things he wouldn’t touch before, even though we would regularly eat them at home.  There’s something about being in a group of peers who are happily eating what is served that helps kids become more adventurous eaters.”

Both chefs enjoy the unique challenges of cooking for kids, where things like seasonality can sometimes be more of an issue.  “In the winter we get lots of sweet potatoes and kale,” noted Justin.  “We’re still working on what we can do with kale that kids will like and eat.  A few weeks back we invented a recipe for potato and kale cakes that they all loved.” 

The chefs then launched into a lively conversation about what has worked, what hasn’t and some ideas they would like to try, like different types of dips made from vegetables or variations on cheesy bread and quesadillas.  “Yeah, carbs and cheese.  If we let some of the kids design the menu we’d have some variation on that theme every day,” they joked.  “We had a class today ask if we could have mac-n-cheese, quesadillas, and cheesy bread next week.  I mean, we’ll probably do it because we love the dialogue and the give-and-take,” said Chris.  “We’ll just figure out how to pair them creatively with the fresh vegetables in our pantry.”

Both chefs have adventurous palettes themselves and love Asian, middle-eastern and continental European cuisine with their culinary roots in traditional southern fare.  While cheesy bread may be the favorite of some, other TLS Duke kids love their Vietnamese noodle salad, Moroccan couscous, or eggplant ragout just as much, if not more.  “We’re also really fortunate to have such a diverse population here because of how international Duke is,” Justin reflected.  “We still cook with the range and sophistication we did in high-end restaurants but have the added joy of being welcomed by a chorus of happy kids shouting our names each day when we role our carts into their classrooms.”

A TLS Duke favorite is the chefs’ home-made hummus.  Kids love it with our homemade breads, corn chips, carrot sticks or cucumber slices.  Our version leaves out the tahini.  This is a great dish to make at home with your child.  It is simple and quick and requires no heating.

Recipe:  TLS Duke Hummus
1 15 oz. can garbanzos beans, drained (set liquid aside)
1 medium clove garlic
Juice from ½ lemon or 2 Tbs.; or 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
2 Tbs. liquid from garbanzo beans (or water if you don’t have reserved liquid from beans)
1.5 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. neutral oil (we use rice brain oil but canola or olive is fine)
½ Tsp. salt
½ Tsp. cumin
½ Tsp. coriander
Chopped parsley and paprika - optional
·       Combine garlic, lemon juice and reserved liquid (or water) in food processor (a blender will work, also)
·       Add ½ of garbanzo beans and process until smooth paste forms
·       Scrape down sides of food processor and add remaining garbanzos, begin processing in
·       Slowly add both types of oil until consistency of that of a thick puree (do this while processing) then add a little more liquid (or water) until desired consistency
·       Remove from food processor and fold in salt and spices, adjusting to taste

·       Garnish with chopped parsley, paprika and additional extra virgin olive oil as desired


  1. We are so thankful for our wonderful Chefs! I love that the kids try things I wouldn't even think to offer. Whenever I actually manage to cook a nutritious, yummy dinner, Jack asks, "Is this school food?" I consider that a compliment!

  2. Thank you, guys, for being so thoughtful about what goes into my little girl's belly. It's why I chose TLS.

  3. Thank you so much for this piece on our fabulous chefs! The menu is one of the main reasons I chose TLS for my son. It makes me so happy to know that he is eating delicious, healthy food every single day. For anyone who didn't try their take home meal of Pulled Pork Pozole - it was AMAZING! We savored every drop and crumb.


Thanks for your comments. All comments are moderated so your comment may not appear immediately on the blog.