Laughter is brightest in the place where the food is. – Irish proverb.
Chef Manager Tom Buckley remembers exactly the day he started running the school’s cafeterias. He has worked at the school for 15 years and his infectious enthusiasm for his job is a fresh as ever. “I started the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2002,” he said with certainty. He remembers it well because, “It was the first job I ever got where I got paid for time off after only working two days.”
As with many of Chef Tom’s quips, he followed it up with a blushing grin and a boyish laugh. Here is a man who truly loves his job. The food-centered holiday makes a perfect anniversary reminder every year for a man who earns his living stuffing hundreds of people five days a week.
Tom and his staff of seven serve breakfast five mornings a week at the Pearl Street cafeteria. “We sell to about 50 to 70 families,” he said. Then they serve lunch at Pearl Street to roughly 600 students and teachers in third through eighth grades, each with their own lunch period. The new Upper School cafeteria at Lawrence Street has an “open lunch” schedule wherein students and faculty can eat whenever they’re free, and serves approximately 200 people per day.
With so many meals and such a high turnover, Tom gets creative to serve foods that are healthy, satisfying, and never stale, both in content and form.
Today’s Pizza Fridays special? “Border to border pizza,” said Tom, pointing to a stack of pies being prepared behind him in the kitchen by Food Service Staff member Juan Alvarez. “Jalapenos and Canadian bacon.”
Lest you think the mobs of harried customers day after day have worn him down, Chef Tom makes his feelings clear in no uncertain terms. “It’s a great community to be a part of,” he said. “I’m given a lot of creative freedom. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
BFS is not only his first Friends school, it’s his first school ever. Previously he worked catering weddings and corporate events. “Then, ” he paused for the windup, “I came here. Feeding kids and adults, I have to scratch various itches. I want the kids to get excited and I want the adults to get excited, too.”
His biggest challenge thus far has been the dreaded dumpling. It’s a prime example of a dish which everyone loves and, unfortunately for Chef Tom and his staff, literally can’t get enough of. Dumpling madness makes preparing for the meals a Herculean task. “The dishes that everyone loves, we get beat up for it,” he said. “Everybody goes nuts over our dumplings but we can never make enough.” A chicken dumpling side note that Tom is quick to point out: the dumplings are custom made for BFS using antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken.
Vegan options are increasingly available due to community demand and Tom’s quick responsiveness. “Vegan and gluten-free options have increased over the past few years,” he said. “We always have a vegetarian option for everything we make, and a pork-free option. As the pendulum swings more heavily vegan in the vegetarian community, we make more of that.” He stresses in particular the quality of his house-made soups. “We make our own. Anything that can be made vegan, we do. No ham hocks, no bacon.”
Tom is also working with Media Services Director Andy Cohen on a more vegan-friendly labeling system for the daily menu that appears on the video kiosks throughout the school, “like, a hunter green text on the vegan options instead of just a V or an asterisk.” This side project is still a work-in-progress as of this writing.
Anything else new and exciting cooking on the back burner? “We just got two new products,” he said. “Safe-catch tuna,” which he learned about on the appropriately named budding entrepreneur show Shark Tank. “The mercury is only 1/10th or less than FDA standards,” he boasted. “You can eat it every day, pregnant women can eat it. We also just started serving organic hard boiled eggs.”
And the greens? “The greens are always organic,” he states proudly.