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