Chef Marshall Morris might be cooking in the “Land of 10,000 Hotdishes,” but you won’t find tater tot casserole on his menu. Baja fish, grilled miso-glazed salmon, Peruvian stir fry and grilled asparagus are more likely to appear in Providence Academy’s lunchroom than any canned soup concoction.
“He cooks very nutritious foods, but very creatively,” says Allison Adducci, a parent of an eighth grader and a senior. “It’s not your typical school lunch. He introduces new tastes and new textures.”
Chef Morris’s penchant for broadening the students’ palates harkens back to his childhood kitchen in Jamaica, where he learned simple stove and pan cooking from his mother. As one of 10 children, Morris understood early what it takes to cook for a crowd. Later, his interest in food took root when he studied agriculture in Jamaica.
After meeting his wife, Susan, Morris moved to Minnesota in 1984. He went from busboy to food server, eventually becoming the restaurant manager at the former Radisson University West Bank, Minneapolis. He went on to receive an associate’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at Normandale Community College, and became Providence’s head chef with Signature Dining, now Taher Inc., 14 years ago.
With a team of 15 employees, Morris feeds most of the school’s more than 800 students, as well as around 70 staff members. “That’s the tricky part,” Morris says of tending to the tastes of a wide audience. While the main menu is the same for all grade levels, the middle and high schoolers are offered a grill line and sandwich bar.
“One of the favorites is the orange chicken or anything with pasta,” Morris says. “The weird thing is they really don’t care for baked chicken with sauce, lasagna or ham. The middle and upper school [students] are open to try more things.”
“I feel like I can’t compete with Mr. Morris,” parent Donna Horsam says with a laugh. Her daughter, seventh-grader Abby Collins, prefers Morris’s pasta sauce to her mom’s rendition, and her son, sixth-grader Michael Collins, enjoys the miso salmon and even rutabagas. “I’m often surprised about what they like,” Horsam says.
Many of the healthy recipes come from around the world, literally. Morris explains that Taher employs a Chef Council, made up of, on average, five members who travel the world in search of recipes that can translate well into school lunches. The council meets about once a year with school cooks to discuss and test the recipes. One of the council’s recipes hails from Peru. “Peruvian stir fry, topped with french fries (potatoes are popular in Peru),” Morris notes. “It doesn’t sound like something that would go very well, but the kids really like it.”
Students also seem to enjoy “no-meat Fridays,” in keeping with the school’s Catholic tradition. On those days, Morris rotates proteins, including crab, salmon, tilapia and even edamame to maintain nutritional standards.
Like many parents, Morris uses some creativity to encourage students to step out of their culinary comfort zones. For example, beef tips over noodles sound a bit more palatable than the entrée’s given name—beef stroganoff, which might turn some kids away. “You have to get it past them,” he says.
Another tactic is to slowly introduce a new food. For the debut of rutabagas in the lunchroom, Morris diced them up and mixed with corn. He placed a raw, sliced rutabaga in the lunch line, so students could understand what they were eating. Now that the young diners are used to the flavor, he uses the vegetable in one of his fresh-made soups to add a layer of flavor and texture.
Morris places a high priority on fresh ingredients. Typically, three seasonal fresh fruits and one canned variety are offered daily, along with a vegetable serving with every entrée. He butters and seasons the vegetables to make them more palatable, “but it’s up to the kids to eat them,” Morris says.
From August through October, 90 percent of the kitchen’s produce comes from Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm in Waverly, which features Minnesota-grown, hand-harvested products.
Morris’s tips for getting kids to eat healthful foods? “When you cook, you’re not a short-order cook. Don’t make a special meal for your kids. When they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat. That’s how kids learn to eat. They see what their parents are eating.”