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Chefs learn to feed scholarly masses

Nearing noon, the potato turbate is sizzling in the oven, stacked 10 pans high and emitting its familiar aroma throughout the south end of Seminole High. Students struggle to concentrate in class, entranced by the exalted scent of, by far, the most famous lunchtime entree in the history of Pinellas County schools.

The bell rings, and a mad dash ensues.

"If we're serving turbate," Seminole's cafeteria manager Maryann Powanda said, "we're ready. We have to be."

The cafeteria workers know the turbate, similar to a shepherd's pie, is a crowd-pleaser. It always has been, it seems.

But how to keep it as such?

For as long as dishes like this have been served up in schools, new ranks of cafeteria employees have been taught to cook them the right way. Many of the dishes are easy: sloppy joes, beef-and-noodles, spaghetti, Cuban black beans over rice.

But easy for, say, 2,000 hungry kids?

Never.

Try egg strata for 1,000, chicken tetrazzini by the tub.

That is the purpose of the specialist class held every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at the high school's cafeteria: to teach prospective cooks and bakers the art of homespun cuisine en masse.

The class at Seminole High takes about 12 weeks to complete. Students spend six weeks cooking, six weeks baking.

Cristo Christu leads the group. A few other veterans help him out: Powanda, who has worked 18 years in cafeteria service, and Seminole Elementary's manager Maureen Williams, who has pinched yeast rolls for 23 years.

Christu has worked in cafeterias for 10 years and is a graduate of the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan.

He said the trend these days is away from fatty foods.

"Some of these kids, what they eat here is the only healthy meal of the day," he said. "And what they say about a full stomach helping a kid learn better, that's truer than anything."

The three like to think that what they are doing for kids is immeasurable.

"I take pride in what goes out of my line," Williams said. "If I see something that I wouldn't eat, it doesn't go out there."

But there are things, like sloppy portion control and failure to follow standardized recipes, that push their tempers to a boil.

"You don't want to give one kid a scoop and another a scoop and a half," Powanda said. "That wouldn't be fair."

"And if you have a kid who goes to Seminole Elementary one year and eats spaghetti and goes to Fuguitt Elementary the next, that spaghetti should taste the same," Williams adds. "How is a kid going to know he likes spaghetti if every time he eats it, it tastes different? It has to be the same."

Which is why they have the class, complete with midterms, finals and other tests. They learn to use industrial-size convection ovens and huge mixing machines. They learn to make pizzas by the hundreds.

"You have to satisfy the customer," said 66-year-old Jessie Golden, as she kneaded a huge ball of dough.

"I'm on my second generation now," Williams said. "I have responsibility for making sure their bellies are full, and that's a big one. "It feels good to see them walking out full," Williams said. "I think, "my kids are fed.' "

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