kitchen inspiration: jeremy barnwell’s school lunch for grown ups

It’s not often that we get inspired by dishes in the school cafeteria, but Jeremy Barnwell’s school lunches are something else indeed. Not content to just shop for organic fruits and veggies at the farmers market, he grows an abundant garden just outside the school kitchen and harvests crunchy carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli for stir fries, and greens and herbs for salads. Food so fresh and delicious that kids clean their plates at school?  Now that’s smart.

We visit Jeremy in the cafeteria to hear what inspires him to feed close to 100 kids on a given day and leave with arms full of food from his garden for our own school lunch for grown ups.  Keep reading for the interview & recipe.

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What is your favorite cookbook?

Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan

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Who is your culinary idol?

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall

Where do you get culinary inspiration?

Eating out a lot, nature, the farmer’s market, art, being in the garden.

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Tell us about your dream dinner party–you can invite six guests (real, imaginary, living, or dead) to dinner-what, who, & where?

It would be in Mexico, perhaps at a Mayan temple site. I would have Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson cook for us. My dinner guests would be my wife Alison, Bill Hicks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Maharishi, Tina Fey, and Carl Jung.

What’s in your fridge right now?

Cheese, chicken liver mousse from Dai Due, Topo Chico, Real Ale Full Moon Pale Rye, veggies, herbs, and mushrooms from the farmer’s market, salumi from Salt & Time, soy sauce, sriracha, and fish sauce.

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What flavors inspire taste memories for you?

Breakfast foods and southern cooking. Venison and wild game. Anything you can hunt or catch yourself reminds me of my childhood. Pretty much anything you would find in a typical East Texas grandmother’s home.

What’s your favorite ingredient?

Salt, it can make or break a dish.

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It’s Wednesday night at 6:30. What’s for dinner?

A cheese and charcuterie plate and maybe an arugula salad from our garden. On Wednesdays, I cook lunch for two schools and then teach a cooking class to middle school students. After cooking and cleaning twice already, I’m out of energy to cook for a third time.

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Kitchen Inspirations: School Lunch for Grown Ups

Spring Greens with Chicken & Feta :: Vegetable Escabeche

For Salad:

3 c baby greens

1-2 c steamed or lightly sauteed spring vegetables (I used broccoli & snow peas)

1-2 spring onions, sliced

1 c cooked chicken (thinly sliced)

maldon or other coarse sea salt & freshly ground pepper

olive oil + red wine vinegar

1/4 c crumbled feta cheese

In a large bowl, combine greens, vegetables, and chicken.  Sprinkle with maldon salt and grind pepper over the top.  Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar and toss to combine.  Place on serving plates and top with crumbled feta.  Serve with vegetable escabeche on the side.

For Vegetable Escabeche:

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets and blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, then plunged into ice water, then drained

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2″ pieces and blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, then plunged into ice water, then drained

1/2 small red onion, slivered

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 bay leaf

1/2 t EACH coriander seeds, brown mustard seeds, black peppercorns, white peppercorns

1/2 c olive oil

1 c white or apple cider vinegar

1 c water

Pack cauliflower, carrots, red onion, garlic and bay leaf into a wide-mouthed jar.  Measure spices into jar, then pour in olive oil.  Heat vinegar and water together in a saucepan to a simmer and pour over everything in the jar.  Screw the lid on tightly and shake contents.  Set aside to marinate for at least 20 minutes.  Keeps well for several weeks refrigerated.

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not your average lunch lady: jeremy barnwell

Jeremy Barnwell is not your average lunch lady. Tall, bearded, tattooed, and passionately committed to the local food movement, he’s more daring entrepreneur than cafeteria worker.  After years of running a successful pastured poultry operation, he heard his wife bemoaning the lackluster and nutritionally deficient lunches served at The Rawson Saunders School where she is an elementary school teacher, and decided he could do a better job.  No matter that he had not cooked professionally before; he sold the new head of school with his enthusiasm and his big idea to create a local and farm-based lunch program for the school.  Sometimes what you don’t know leads to innovation, and four years later, he has legions of tiny fans and the unwavering support and trust of their parents, grows and harvests fresh produce at the school for his meals, teaches an elective cooking course at Rawson Saunders, has expanded to a second campus, wowed the audience at TEDx Austin with a bento box style lunch, and has plans to grow Barnison Catering even bigger to meet the needs of more kids in the Austin community.  We visit Jeremy in the cafeteria kitchen to see for ourselves the surest sign of his success: kids holding lunch trays piled high with fresh, colorful, just-harvested organic vegetables and fruit, wearing ear-to-ear grins, ready to dig in.

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Tell your brand story in 5 words.

Healthy school lunches, locally sourced.

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What was your first job?


My first job was at age twelve working in a small convenience store/deli/ gas station/feed store that my mom owned in northeast Texas.

What is your biggest motivator?


Knowing that I am changing the way that kids: that will hopefully affect the rest of their lives.

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What has been your greatest mistake?


Trying to do too much by myself. I was always reluctant to hire anyone to help. Since hiring my first employee just this year (the amazing Anne Hargrove), I have watched my business grow significantly. I realized that there are people out there who share the same integrity and passion that I have for putting out an excellent product.

Tell us about your lucky break?

I’ve had so many, but the main two are as follows: 
My brother-in-law was on a flight and began to chat with the flight attendant who lived in Austin. He told her that his sister and I were moving to Austin soon and looking for work. She gave him the phone number of a man running a free-range poultry business in Austin. When I called the farmer to inquire about a job, he replied that he was getting out of the business and was looking to sell his farm. We went to visit and long story short, purchased the property and began our own poultry operation. Things seemed to just fall into place. Through that poultry operation, I had the opportunity to work with some great chefs who re-introduced me to my passion for cooking.
 The second big break was getting the school lunch job at Rawson Saunders School. When I started the poultry business, I hadn’t touched a chicken since I was a kid. Within a few months, we had raised enough birds to sustain a booth at the farmer’s market. When I began serving lunches, I had never worked in a restaurant or kitchen, but within a few short months owned a successful food business. I feel like my whole adult life has been a lucky break.

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Required reading for every food entrepreneur?

Lucky Peach Magazine, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, anything by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

Who is your business idol?

Joel Salatin

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Words of wisdom:

Be nice and do what makes you happy

What gets you to work every morning?


Knowing that kids are relying on me for their meal. For some of them, it is their only healthy, well-balanced meal of the day.

What inspires you?


Knowing the best is yet to come.

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What other businesses do you come back to again & again?


East Side King. We eat there at least once a week. Habanero’s,
 Barley Swine, 
The Grackle, The Liberty, Contigo.

How do you measure success?


Through happy customers, happy employees and a happy self. Also, if I’m able to create and run a sustainable business that can promote other local business as well as myself without it being a competition, that’s success.

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If you weren’t cooking school lunches, what would you be doing?


I have a degree in aquatic biology so I could see myself working for a fishery or for Parks and Wildlife.
 But in reality, I’d still probably cooking in some respect.

What’s your next big idea?

Room temperature.

Stay tuned later in the week for more culinary inspiration and a recipe inspired by Jeremy’s tasty, healthy lunch menu!

que rico: fresa’s chicken al carbon

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Tastemakers is so excited to be partnering with Camille Styles to showcase the creative, inspiring, and delicious stories of fascinating food entrepreneurs over on her blog as well as here on our home site! Read on for a closer look at Fresa’s, one of our favorite spots in Austin for smoky, flavorful, locally-sourced and sustainably raised chicken al carbon and handmade salsas, tortillas and ice cream. We catch up with Margaret Vera, Fresa’s co-owner and creative mastermind, in the lull between breakfast tacos and full-on lunch rush to talk inspiration, innovation and how she manages to do it all with such style and grace. We also share a fantastic recipe for a super quick weeknight pozole we whipped up with one of Fresa’s perfectly cooked and oh-so convenient achiote marinated charcoal-grilled birds. Click here for recipe & full post.

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