Léman School Chef Masters the Art of Pleasing Kids’ Palates

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Jenny Gensterblum transforms cafeteria food into healthy and delectable meals

By Alex Mikoulianitch

Jenny Gensterblum isn’t your ordinary lunch lady working at Léman Preparatory School and flipping hash browns. She’s got an impressive arsenal of cooking skills up her sleeve, all backed by a degree from the French Culinary Institute in New York, which she deploys in earnest to provide delicious, nutritious meals for the school’s students and faculty on a daily basis.

From a young age, Gensterblum was surrounded by a culinary atmosphere. Starting from the garden her family owned, to her mother’s cooking talents, the young Michigan-born girl began budding an affinity for the kitchen that eventually proved to be part of her career.

“Mom was a big cook and really influenced how I like to eat and what I think about food,” Gensterblum said.

She admits it was unexpected for her when she realized her path was going in the direction of the culinary arts, though looking back on it now, it seems all too obvious.

“It definitely surprised me, but I realized I was spending all my free time learning recipes and having dinner parties and spending all my money on exotic ingredients, so it’s definitely something that occurred to me later on,” Gensterblum said.

This realization prompted Gensterblum to travel to the Big Apple and enroll at the French Culinary Institute, which she believes was the most enriching experience she had ever had.

“I think it was the best year of my life,” Gensterblum said. “It’s one thing to enjoy cooking and being able to doing it on your free time. But being able to do it every single day was so amazing. I learned so much and I met so many great people. I think it was a challenge trying to figure out what I was going to do once I graduated, but luckily I found a place.”

Gensterblum didn’t automatically stumble upon a position at the school. She went the traditional route, working at a few restaurants first.

“I started working at a restaurant in the East Village, and I was there for probably around seven months after I graduated,” Gensterblum said. “It really wasn’t something that was resonating with me. I was seeing a lot in the news about school food lunch reform and ways that you could get involved with it, and I ended up finding an opening at [Léman] and I came straight here.”

It was here that Gensterblum began focusing her efforts on school lunch reform. The kind of lunch kids eat at Léman is much different from the average lunch you’ll see at a New York public school. The students go crazy for her kale chips, and she routinely makes healthier versions of traditional favorites, like corn chowder and marinara sauce, from scratch. She’s even compiled her team’s recipes into a cookbook, Secret Sauce, to bring her kid-pleasing fare to the masses.

“I think, for us here, and I know there are a lot of schools out there, especially private schools where they have dining services companies that come in and [they] can change from week to week, but everyone that works here works solely for the school,” Gensterblum said. “We really, really care about the kids. [We want] to make sure they get a good meal and make sure that it’s something that they look forward to. We really take pride in what we put out for them.”

These efforts, which Gensterblum heavily credits to the help of the school administration and the rest of the staff, are what brought her recognition for her outstanding service to the culinary field.
“My staff and I are really honored,” Gensterblum said. “[We] work really hard every day to make sure that the kids are learning something about food and getting a good meal and look forward to coming to lunch. I’m just really grateful and honored to getting some recognition for it.”

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