High-end chef Cody Williams now heads Sonoma Valley schools’ food service

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Just a few years ago, Cody Williams was a sous chef at an iconic Napa Valley restaurant preparing sophisticated dishes like Mongolian pork chops, grilled rabbit and lamb burgers.

Those orders would never make the grade at his new job, where pint-sized consumers want simple, familiar foods on their school cafeteria trays.

This month, the professionally trained chef marks his second anniversary as manager of the food services department with the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, where he’s slowly shaping the palates and eating habits of students from kindergarten through high school.

At 36, he’s humble enough to know that kids are picky eaters and that even the first lady can’t change their food preferences overnight. He’s trying, though, by eliminating almost all packaged and canned foods, using more fresh fruits and vegetables and foods with fewer ingredients and the most healthful options possible.

“I’m trying to beat them at their own game,” he said, acknowledging that the challenge is more of a distance run than a sprint.

“We have to make smart, strategic moves so it’s sustainable, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing,” Williams said.

His job is a balancing act with a tight budget and time constraints for his team of 24 cafeteria workers, who cook at eight on-site school cafeterias. They serve about 850 breakfasts and 2,300 lunches daily, about half the district’s enrollment. About 61 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.

Meals must comply with the rigorous nutritional guidelines of the national Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that took effect in 2012, just before Williams left his job at culinary pioneer Cindy Pawlcyn’s Mustards Grill in Napa.

“It was a very hard decision to leave Cindy, but ultimately I knew it was the right decision,” said Williams, who holds a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

“Cody has become a visionary not only in the district but truly across the state,” said Louann Carlomagno, superintendent of the local school district. “He and his team are continually thinking of new and innovative ways to help students make healthy food choices.”

Williams offers professional development days by enticing his staff with his own cooking, and allows each site manager to tweak his menus a bit “as long as they’re within the guidelines,” he said. He has enhanced school cafeterias with new appliances and equipment he secured through grants totaling $100,000.

In January, Williams was appointed to a three-year term on the California State Board of Education Child Nutrition Advisory Council, a 13-member leadership group devoted to enhancing health and nutrition education for California youth.

He recently was named to the newly formed Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Kids Collaborative, which will broaden the school’s Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids Initiative to increase the availability and acceptance of healthy foods in schools. Williams is one of some 35 school nutrition leaders from around the country invited to serve with the collaborative.

Fine dining background

Williams has worked at several notable fine dining establishments, including a stint during college at the Mohonk Mountain House resort in New York’s Hudson Valley, a national historic landmark that has been welcoming guests since horse-and-buggy days,

His culinary skills have taken him to high-end restaurants in Boston and San Francisco, as well as Sonoma and Napa valleys. Williams worked for six years for the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and opened its restaurant at the Sonoma Golf Club, where he served Wine Country cuisine within the multi-million-dollar clubhouse.

When Julia Child once observed him at work at Copia wine and food center in Napa, she told him, “You have a bright light, and I can see you’re very passionate about food and cooking. Don’t let anyone take it away.”

He’s as passionate today as he was when he met the culinary legend. His emphasis has shifted, though, to school kids and improving their diets.

“The biggest challenge is to make sure I set up menus for kids’ palates and tastes that they don’t get bored with,” he said. “What we’re doing is helping families in healthy eating and reducing obesity rates and getting kids out there who know the difference.”

Today, he works from a nondescript office at the district’s transportation yard, with a view of yellow school buses and a secondary door that opens to the food warehouse. He occasionally slips into his classic chef coat and heads to a school cafeteria to create new menu items or to prepare specialties for high school lunches.

Although he’s no longer preparing dishes for the hospitality trade, Williams is equally challenged managing a $1.8 million food services budget, about $800,000 of that for food costs.

Occasionally, he misses the energy and excitement of his professional chef days.

“It was an amazing feeling,” he said. “But I never felt like I was walking away from food.”

Taking the school district job offered both a “quality-of-life” change and a welcome opportunity to help establish a generation of healthy eaters.

He and his wife, Amber, a local fifth-grade teacher, have a 3-year-old daughter who was just a toddler when the couple realized the typical six-day workweek and often 12-hour days of a chef weren’t especially conducive to family life.

Motivated by an opportunity to spend time with his family and make a difference in his hometown school district, Williams jumped at the chance to succeed the retiring Donna Luzzi.

Williams grew up in Sonoma, the lone boy in a family with five girls, and attended local public schools. He mostly carried a sack lunch to school but was definitely on board for those “Pizza Day” specials that remain popular today.

He’s now responsible for menus at seven elementary schools, two middle schools and his alma mater, Sonoma Valley High School.

He takes great pride in his accomplishments as a professional chef — growing Boonfly Café in the Carneros region by 33 percent, for instance — but was ready for new challenges when he applied for Luzzi’s post.

“It was a mental shift for me that I was prepared for,” he said. “After 10 years of primarily working in the tourism industry, I felt disconnected from the community. I missed the connection with Sonoma.” His job satisfaction is significant, particularly as he recognizes many of the kids who come through his cafeteria lines.

Williams is grateful to everyone in the restaurant industry who ever gave him a job, especially Sonoma Valley caterer Elaine Bell, who hired him as a teen and was his first (and lasting) mentor.

He’s putting his experience and education to work for local kids but, he admits, it can be daunting when the most popular item on his menu is “Brunch for Lunch,” with prepackaged Egg-O waffles and sausage. He has made it healthier by sourcing sausage with only five ingredients that is void of preservatives and additives.

“I’m going to find the best quality I can,” Williams said.

He was especially drawn to the job by the school district’s dedication to supporting farm-to-table dining. By the time he interviewed, every campus (including the district’s small alternative high school) had a school garden, 11 in all.

From the gardens

At the district’s largest garden at Altimira Middle School, the two-acre site produces tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, squash and herbs, “hundreds of pounds of each throughout the year,” Williams said.

That produce, along with smaller yields from other campuses, is used to supplement the USDA commodities and other food he orders, bringing just-picked flavor, nutrition and variety to cafeteria trays.

Williams pays the schools $2 per pound, creating a “win-win situation” for everyone.

He credits Sonoma food and wine writer Kathleen Thompson Hill with expanding the district’s modest garden program into the model it has become today. The widespread community support speaks volumes about the overall commitment to Sonoma Valley kids, he said. Chefs, farmers, restaurateurs, service clubs and school district staff have all stepped up to help with the project.

Williams tries to work with the local community as often as possible, buying surplus produce from growers like Paul’s Produce and farm-fresh eggs and vine-ripened strawberries sourced from farms on Watmaugh Road just a few miles from the high school. He also works with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and buys seasonal produce from within the county, like the crisp apples from Walker Farms that are the current Harvest of the Month at all his campuses.

He dedicates about a quarter of his budget to fresh fruit and vegetables, about $200,000 annually, an increase from the $50,000 to $60,000 previously spent. The effort is partly in compliance with the national guidelines of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and partly an effort to promote whole foods that are tasty and nutritional.

The mandate requires a reduction in fats, calories and sodium and an increase in lean proteins and whole grains. A New York Times article recently reported that Congress is looking into reauthorizing the controversial legislation, but Williams isn’t so convinced it’s necessary to make too many changes.

“This movement obviously is here to stay. I hope the momentum continues,” he said. “It’s so needed in our food system.”

Williams often finds inspiration by visiting school cafeterias. “Sometimes I get a plate and go sit down and get feedback,” he said.

At the high school, a questionnaire of 150 leadership students revealed welcome news: Teens want good, nutritious, foods at school. Even younger students are beginning to recognize the benefits of a balanced meal.

At Flowery Elementary School in Boyes Hot Springs, where Williams went to grade school, 8-year-old third-graders Naybi Ponce and Melina Zamudio were giving high marks to their cafeteria menu of pulled pork, refried beans, coleslaw, red grapes, tortilla chips and sliced cucumbers seasoned with tajin, a Mexican spice.

“My food is really tasty and there’s a lot of good stuff like vegetables and fruits,” Naybi said, as her friend nodded in agreement.

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