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Chef Linda Elliott Provides Daily Nutritious Meals To Hungry PHS Students

Wornall campus executive chef Linda Elliott and FLIK Independent School Dining use fresh ingredients to create made-from-scratch meals for hundreds of ravenous PHS students.

Andrew Mouzin

For Linda Elliott, Wornall campus executive chef, her love of cooking stems from her Italian American heritage. "I come from a family of outstanding cooks, and my inspiration has always been both of my grandmothers as well as my parents," she recently explained. "All of our activities centered around family and food."

Some of the foods that Linda remembers growing up are now dishes she prepares for the 600 individuals who enjoy her lunches on the Wornall campus.

Linda has spent many years in the food industry, including co-owning Denver Gourmet and Catering. She has been with the PHS food service for 15 years – the last five as executive chef. In her current role, Linda oversees the kitchen operations on the Wornall campus. Specifically, she is responsible for planning menus for school lunches/snacks and special events, such as Reunion Weekend; ordering food; coordinating inventory; and managing food service employees. She also shares a recipe each week in the faculty and staff newsletter.

Pembroke Hill partners with FLIK Independent School Dining to provide the school’s food service. A hallmark of the FLIK philosophy is all foods are created from scratch with fresh ingredients. “If an ingredient isn’t available, then we change the menu,” Linda explained. Using fresh ingredients means that she and her staff roast all the meats, bread all chicken tenders, infuse water, put salads together and bake many of the breads. Both campuses receive daily food deliveries so that fruit, vegetables, meats and dairy products are as fresh as possible.“We don’t have food sitting around in coolers for very long,” she said.

James Miller, PHS chief financial officer said of Linda, “She is an artist who takes great pride in making people happy with beautiful and tasty meals. Linda cares deeply about connecting people with food that they like and savor.”

Food for early childhood children is delivered to each classroom and served family-style. Kindergarten and first grade choose their entrees in advance. Students, beginning in second grade, go through the serving area to select their lunch. In the Wornall Dining Hall, a fresh fruit and vegetable bar is offered each day.

Linda said parents might be surprised at the smart choices their children are making. "The students seem to love all the fresh fruits and vegetables available on the salad bar. Who knew grapefruit would become so popular with children?

Linda added, "I am pleasantly amazed at the amount of vegetables that are consumed each day," Linda said. "We continue to prepare them in a variety of ways that appeal to students' tastes and curiosity. For example, broccoli strudel and sweet and spicy cauliflower were instant hits."

Linda praises PHS students for their willingness to try new foods. She believes the key to having children eat healthy is to offer foods that are flavorful and presented in an eye-appealing manner. “I also give a lot of credit to our families because I think they are providing their children a variety of foods at home, which makes students more willing to try new items at school.”

Keeping the menu interesting by combining old favorites and new recipes is one of Linda’s goals. “I keep up on what is trending by going on Pinterest, reviewing websites such as Yummly and staying in touch with other FLIK schools.” She also incorporates some of her special family recipes such as eggplant, Parmesan squash bake, lemon chicken and meatballs.

Over the years, Linda has seen children’s tastes evolve. “Students are eating a lot more fish. I have gone from ordering one crate to four crates when we serve fish.” Other favorites include any pasta or Mexican dishes, grilled cheese and of course, her famous lemon chicken. “Breakfast Day is always popular, too,” she added.

An important aspect of operating a food service program is addressing students’ medically necessary dietary needs. Linda and other food service team members are ServSafe Allergens certified. “We prepare special lunches for students who need them, and we have them ready when they come through the line so they don’t have to wait. We also prepare enough to offer seconds.”

Linda has developed her own recipes so that children with dietary restrictions can generally eat the same foods other children are eating. “I make four kinds of meatloaf when it is on the menu,” she said. Additionally, Linda creates homemade tortillas with rice flour and bakes gluten-free bread.

Food service director Joe Kilishek said, "Linda is a wonderful executive chef who has tremendous passion for, and dedication to, her creations. The food she makes is amazing; the flavor, the aroma and the presentation of her meals are always impressive."

Under the direction of Linda and Joe, food service interacts with students by providing nutritional information. For example, FLIK recently introduced the Make Your Plate program that encourages students to choose healthy foods in appropriate portion sizes. Additionally, fifth grade students participate in an educational program that includes an essay contest. Based on their entries, five students spend a morning in the kitchen with Linda learning about food preparation while creating the day’s menu. A similar age-appropriate program is being developed for early childhood children.

Each winter, Linda constructs a gingerbread display to enter into a FLIK-sponsored contest. In three of the last four years, she earned third place. After completed, her masterpiece is on display in the Dining Hall, and children enter a contest to take it home for the holidays.

While coordinating a daily meal for 600 people is no small task, Linda finds her work rewarding and receives great satisfaction from seeing people enjoy her meals. “I love to cook. I am so lucky to do what I love to do, and to do it every day,” she concluded.