Not your ordinary cafeteria

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Everybody eats. So although the school day at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington revolves around academics, the cafeteria is often the hub of activitiy.

At the heart of the O'Connell cafeteria is chef Tony Dean, who has served the school community for the past eight years. Each week, he creates custom menus focused on locally sourced ingredients to please the palates of 1,200 teenagers and more than 150 staff members at O'Connell. Everything he and his staff serve is made from scratch.

Every school day, when many students are just waking up, Dean arrives at O'Connell to begin preparing the day's meals. By 6:30 a.m. the kitchen is humming with activity as breakfast items take shape and the prep work for lunch begins. Early bird students are greeted by a wide-awake kitchen offering fresh-cracked egg and sausage sandwiches, pancakes, crepes, muffins and sometimes even breakfast burritos.

Once the morning bell rings, the serving lines close and the lunch menu becomes the focus. The daily choices include a meat or fish entree - one day it might be grilled salmon with a fruit salsa, and another day it may be herb roasted chicken, both served with an assortment of vegetables. Notable highlights from a teenager's perspective include homemade staples that appear alongside traditional offerings. Top on students' lists might be stuffed shells, pizza, chicken wings or yogurt parfaits. On any given "wing day," students have been known to consume as much as 480 pounds of Tony's Famous Grilled Chicken Wings.

It's a team effort, according to Dean. "Our staff works hard to put out a good product every day, and the kids respond favorably."

Student reviews reinforce the claim. "Their pizza has a crisp but soft crust with a great blend of cheeses," said O'Connell student Marty Knauf. "One of my favorites is their mac and cheese pizza, which is served rarely. It's a must-have."

Beyond what is served on the plate, there is a special relationship between students and cafeteria staff. Many students experience their first O'Connell lunch during "shadow days" as eighth-graders. Now some of these students are seniors, and the cafeteria staff has been an important part of the past four years.

"It's like an extended family," said Dean, often referred to as Chef Tony. "I do what I do for them because they treat me with respect and I treat them with respect also."

"Everyone is so friendly and open," said sophomore Catherine Nguyen. "I really appreciate what they do."

The cafeteria staff ends the day as satisfied as its customers. The recipe for the day's success is a pinch of culinary magic and a lot of caring.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014