In honor of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re celebrating some of our favorite chefs and entrepreneurs. Chef Mihoko Obunai, winner of the Real School Food Challenge, spoke with us about her life and work; the interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but we added an update on the effect it’s had.
In Japan, school lunches are part of an overall education. Students are involved in serving wholesome menus to one another, eating together in classrooms, and cleaning up after themselves. There are no big kitchens or cafeterias with different menu choices. Everyone at school eats the same meal, like one family. This is the same vision Tokyo-born Chef Mihoko Obunai has for children in the U.S.
Obunai is the head of the culinary program at Midtown International School in Atlanta, Georgia. She recently won the Chef Ann Foundation’s Real School Food Challenge: National Restaurant Edition. Created by a nonprofit dedicated to promoting healthier school food, 11 chefs from across the country competed to create a dish following USDA healthy meal guidelines and a budget of $1.25 (which is average for a school lunch in the USA). Obunai’s Japanese chicken curry rice was chosen as the winner based on its taste, presentation, and overall points.
Before cooking for kids, Obunai worked as a private chef; opened her own restaurant (Repast, which closed in 2011); launched a series of ramen pop-ups nationwide (called Mibo Ramen); and taught at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. She is a graduate of New York University and The French Culinary Institute, was named a Rising Star Chef, competed on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” and has been invited to cook at the James Beard house. So it wasn’t a given that she would end up cooking for kids.
A Force of Change
When Obunai’s young sons started attending public school, she was concerned about them not eating well. “I saw that most of the kids would drink milk, but throw away their food. At their age, they needed healthy, nutritious meals, to grow and be able to focus in the classroom, ” she says. That was her main motivation for bringing change to school lunches.
Obunai’s food philosophy is to cook everything from scratch, using local and seasonal ingredients. She sources produce from local farmers, and avoids anything canned, frozen, or with preservatives. “Also, I try not to waste anything, and compost and recycle as much as possible. I use all parts of the animal. Even our utensils, bowls, cups, and trays are compostable and earth friendly,” she adds.
The menu changes daily, showcasing different cuisines so the students feel they can travel through different countries through their lunches. On Meatless Mondays, a vegetable-based menu encourages students to eat more local, seasonal vegetables, and not just from salad bars. Tuesdays are for quesadillas, and other afternoons may see Japanese, Indian, or other cuisines on the menu. Zero Waste Wednesdays are the most creative as all leftovers from the week are incorporated to create something new.
Related Reading: How to Fight Food Waste in Your Own Kitchen
On Friday afternoon, the students learn about the cooking process as well. Obunai demonstrated how to make simple dishes like sushi or eggs—so kids learn to respect food, and its preparation, as she did growing up.
“Kids are picky, but they can be introduced to new things,” advises Obunai. Most kids have an open mind and are not set in their ways like adults. To encourage kids to eat healthier, she recommends giving kids a chance to try new things and not limiting them to “kids menus.”
Obunai is one of few professional chefs with an impressive resume who turned from cooking at restaurants to schools. The biggest challenge for a school kitchen is lack of good chefs. “We need to educate the cooks in the school system first. If they cannot cook healthy, fresh, and flavorful food, they cannot nourish our children,” says Obunai.
As COVID-19 has forced so many schools to close, Chef Obunai has been staying home in quarantine with her two kids. “I miss having a regular work schedule but this time has allowed me to spend time more time with my children and do yard work in my garden. I have been spending time with my children during their Google Classrooms, cooking 3-4 meals a day for them, and working as an online chef conducting culinary classes at Midtown International School. It is a new experience, but the students seem to be enjoying the virtual cooking lessons via Zoom. I really hope we can make it through this safely and return to how things used to be. I miss my work, my cooking ‘farm to school’ lunches, and feeding my students at MIS,” she says.
Header image courtesy of Chef Ann Foundation