SHIRLEY — After Payroll Benefits Manager Shannon Herreros made it out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, she decided that life was too short not to follow her dream.
“I had always wanted to be a chef,” said Herreros earlier this week in the Lura A. White (LAW) School cafeteria. “So I went to the Institute of Culinary Education and was a pastry chef until I had my kids.”
Over the years, Herreros worked for four-star restaurants Brasserie and Mesa Grill in New York City, and later for Wolfgang Puck in Boston.
Her roots brought her back to Massachusetts, where she had attended Lura A. White, then Ayer High School.
“When I first came back, I worked for Harvard University as a pastry chef,” she said. But when she and her husband Evelio, also a chef, decided to start a family, they determined that it would be too difficult for both of them to remain in the profession.
When an accounting specialist position opened up in the school district, she applied. Herreros has now served in that position for the past two and a half years.
“I still had my passion for cooking,” she said, “and I did the baking club with (LAW) Kitchen Manager Joan O’Clair for the past two years.
“Then our food service director left and I interviewed for the position. It was offered to me even though I am still doing the accounting and transportation.”
The one-year position of interim food service director was created to bridge the gap until the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District is operational in July 2011. The former food service director left to accept a similar position in another school district.
Since her appointment to the new job, Herreros has been going full-steam ahead — but not alone.
“We’re really a team,” she said of her partnership with co-worker and Payroll/Human Resources Specialist Cindy Martineau. The pair, used to working together in the school business office, is now collaborating on making improvements to the LAW cafeteria. With the help of Extended Day Program Director Susan Noll and Kitchen Manager O’Clair, things are really shaping up.
Herreros, Martineau, O’Clair, and Noll have been sanding, painting, and reorganizing the LAW cafeteria all summer. “Last year Cindy and Joan painted the walls yellow, and Susan painted the mural. So we were like, ‘let’s make this place shine.’ Cindy, Susan and I decided if we can’t buy new equipment, we’ll make it look brand-new.”
Although kitchen workers use regular cutting boards on top of them for chopping, Herreros took the time to sand, coat, and season the cafeteria’s wooden cutting blocks. With the help of the school custodians, she also moved some of the furniture around to make more space.
Herreros and her team painted the cafeteria pantry and entry doors and poles sage green; sanded and painted the galvanized metal shelves with aluminum paint; and sanded and painted the ovens with paint made to withstand high temperatures.
As for the menu, the new food-service director intends to offer more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, but very gradually.
“The menu may look the same, (because) the target audience is still the same. Kids like the same things and I still have to advertise to each child,” she explained.
“On the first day I’m going to offer a chicken patty sandwich. If I offer something processed I’ll change it slowly — add lettuce, tomato, a whole grain bun, and peaches. There are certain things (I’ll add) like fresh vegetables using a local farmer; same with the fruits. As the year progresses, you’ll see more of a shift in the lunches, but I still need to serve my audience.”
Just a week ago Herreros attended a school food service directors convention. “In one school, the kids went on strike — (the menu) was changed too much, too fast,” she said.
Before the end of last school year, Herreros went into the middle school and asked the students what they liked and disliked about the school menu. “I tried to explain to them why things are the way they are — that serving sizes are based on their size; nobody’s trying to be a ‘cheap Charlie.’ I explained why they can’t have pizza every day — that there are certain guidelines we have to follow.
“Once you lose a customer, it’s hard to get them back. When you own a restaurant, you can serve what you want. When you’re a public servant, you still have to appeal to everybody. The changes will be incremental. You’ve got to do it in stages.
“The first stage was to get the kitchen more operational and functional.”
As part of the kitchen reorganization, Herreros moved the 20-quart Hobart mixer over to the opposite side of the kitchen.
“Now it doesn’t have to move as far to be used. It saves time and energy. Little things that make a difference in the kitchen are important. You just learn these things working with different chefs and working in the kitchen,” she said.
As she finishes planning the menus, they will be posted on the school district website at http://www.shirley-ma.gov/food-service-school-district-1589/lunch-menus. The prices for meals will remain the same as last year: $1 for breakfast and $2.25 for lunch.
Herreros intends to expand the breakfast program, and prepare homemade desserts such as apple crisp and oatmeal raisin cookies for lunch every Thursday. “Especially as a pastry chef, I don’t believe that desserts as a whole are bad for you. Consuming them in excess is — just like everything else,” she asserted. “Everything in moderation.”
“I would much rather have my child eat one homemade chocolate chip cookie than an Oreo. It has real butter and real eggs — no dyes or artificial ingredients.”
Herreros is very confident that she and the schools have a good understanding of how to deal with students’ food allergies. “I have one child who has allergies, and I have allergies…but I’ve learned how to deal with them. And I understand the concern as a parent.”
She believes that each middle-school student should take responsibility to understand what he or she can and cannot have in terms of allergies. “They should be able to know and say that, to let people know,” she stressed.
She said that her homemade desserts, baked from scratch, would not contain nuts. “That would exclude a large portion of the student population,” Herreros said.
But Herreros is not talking about doing anything extravagant. “We’re self-funded; we still have to work within a tight budget,” she added.
As she stood amid the sage-green and yellow décor and the gleaming hardware, Herreros looked gratified. “This has been a total team effort. The people who have donated time and effort and given their free time — I’d like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
Besides Cindy Martineau, Joan O’Clair, and Susan Noll, Herreros credits Special Education Administrative Assistant Linda Cournoyer, Middle School Extended Day Group Leader Anise Soucy, Middle School Kitchen Manager Sue Sheldrick, Rich Noll, her husband, Evelio Herreros, and LAW custodians Chris Martin, Jay Marshall, and Jack Senecal with making the changes in the LAW cafeteria possible. “They worked hard and never complained,” she said.