When he was first offered a gig preparing public school meals, Aaron Smith—Google marketing pro turned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school graduate—had one thought: Uh, chicken nuggets? But Smith’s upbringing on Chicago’s West Side, on blocks beset by drugs, crime, and violence, fueled out-of-the-box (or boxy cafeteria tray) thinking. He elevated lunch periods in Rockford, Illinois, and Chattanooga before being named top food guru at Seattle Public Schools last December. His mission: Add cultural twists for the district’s 53,000 students, engaging community groups to reimagine tater tot hour as a feast of global cuisine. Smith is ready to give Seattle schoolkids what they want—hint, it isn’t chicken nuggets. —AW
When my mom got laid off at work, she ended up being a lunch lady and selling cookies after school just to help us, just to pay our school tuition.
We would make cookies in batches, tons at home at night. Oatmeal, chocolate chip, raisin. She made sure that we were taken care of.
No kid should be able to identify what a dead body smells like while they’re walking to school. Hearing gunshots—I didn’t know it wasn’t normal until I went to college.
My oldest friend is from freshman year of college. Everybody else I knew before then, everyone who was my friend, is either dead or in jail.
You get a really thick skin. The one thing about growing up like that is I learned that nobody can tell me what I can do.
I went off to college and started to cook on my own, and I was horrible. I was on the phone calling my mom and my grandma every day, saying “This rice thing is more complicated than you think!”
My granddad used to call me hardheaded—if I’m not doing it right I keep going at it. I can’t cook it as good as my mom but I can make rice now.
I remember the first day of work after culinary school. I had to plate a salad with tweezers and a little French guy was yelling at me the whole time, “What are you doing? You’re messing up.”
That didn’t even compare to the challenges I faced after I graduated high school. When I went to Illinois State there were times in the classroom where I was the only minority out of 300 students.
People look at you different, people make fun of your accent, your slang. It’s a tough thing mentally to deal with.
I think the public perception of school food is poor; I think expectations are low. It went from home-cooked, granny-style meals to just heat-and-serve, but now [it’s] going back to that scratch cooking.
One thing about kids is they have no filter. But I don’t just ask for complaints; around Seattle I ask, “What’s your favorite food?” Sushi. All of them are like, sushi, sushi, sushi.
I think we kind of burned them out on pizza.
The best food I’ve had in Seattle has been in the International District. They gave me this chicken wing that was stuffed with rice—I don’t know how they did it.
The cool thing about Seattle is that it’s so diverse. My goal is to find out all of the different cultures and find a way where [students] walk into that lunchroom and see something they identify with.
To walk into that cafeteria and be greeted with a smile and be treated respectfully—that could make a world of a difference in that kid’s life.