Brimmer’s Director for Food Services talks about good food, kitchen camaraderie, and how to get kids to try something new.
Lunchtime at Brimmer is a busy affair in the Corkin Dining Commons. The Brimmer Kitchen prepares nearly 600 meals to feed a crowd of hungry students ranging from 3 to septuagenarians. They all have different tastes, diets, and preferences. The Brimmer team led by Director Michael Sconce, who is responsible for food services, can accomplish what may seem impossible to others. Sconce’s calm and soft-spoken demeanor, combined with his wealth of experience, is the perfect recipe for success.
Sconce became interested in cooking when she was a young adult. “I loved good food but couldn’t afford it at the time. So I learned how to cook for myself. When my older brother moved out, he learned how to cook. It seemed very sophisticated. “I watched him, tried it myself, and bought cookbooks.”
He was surprised to discover that his growing interest in cooking was actually a natural talent. He recalls that “it came naturally to be a cook, one of the few things I could do.” It was not easy to get a job as a cook without any experience. Michael had to apply for more than 10 years, and during that time, he worked as a bike mechanic, as well as a ski patroller, while living in Washington State. During this period, Michael also returned to school. “I decided to pursue a nutrition degree because I liked the idea of alternative medicines, although I would consider nutrition more preventative than alternatives.” His studies helped open the door for his first job in the kitchen. “The chef that I worked for was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. While his job was to cook, nutrition was his passion. We got along well because I was studying nutrition, but cooking was my passion. “Since then, I have only cooked.”
Sconce moved to the East Coast and took a position as Chef/Manager in Boston Medical Center. He oversaw a 40-person team, which prepared food for catering services and patient meals. One of the challenges in this role was to observe first-hand the effects of poor nutrition on patients who had chronic illnesses caused by obesity. He sees similarities between his former position and his work at Brimmer. He says that a chef can work in a hospital, which is an excellent use of his talents. Or he could be a teacher at a school, which is perhaps more beneficial. If you teach people how to eat healthy foods early on, they may continue to do so and stay out of hospitals.
Sconce, armed with this knowledge, landed at Brimmer in the role of Lead Cook and Assistant kitchen manager four years ago. He says, “This job was some of the most valuable education I have ever received.” It has been an incredible opportunity for me.
Sconce finds ways to engage with the community beyond the Dining Commons, despite the fact that he spends most of his day managing the kitchen and the food service. He has built meaningful relationships with teachers and students through the curriculum-based events that take place in the Outdoor Garden as well as the Library Tower Gardens. He also runs an After-School club called Mini-Cooks, where he can get to know Lower-School students by teaching them cooking techniques and showing how they can experiment with different food.
Sconce’s Traveler’s Tables series, a second effort to integrate Brimmer’s Cuisine into the curriculum, brings global learning to lunch every month. The concept was developed in collaboration with the Creative Arts Department and has allowed the kitchen to try new foods each month. Sconce’s team and he began the program by exploring the cultures and cuisines of Africa, South America, and Asia. Recently, they have expanded to include the cuisines of Europe. He laughs, “People don’t know how many meals we have tried, even though we have never cooked them or tasted them.” Virigina Beech, who has lived in Germany, assured me after she ate the sauerbraten that we cooked for our Germany Traveler’s Table.
“Kids are willing to try new things if they trust and know you,” says he. If you cook the foods they enjoy and do a great job, they will trust you to make other things taste good, even if it’s something they have never tried before. I remember one Kindergarten student saying, “I didn’t like apples before but now I do because we made apple crumble!”
Sconce, who is mostly in the background these days but still sets the tone for the kitchen with his confident leadership, helps to ensure the success of his team. He can’t say enough good things about the Brimmer staff. He raves, “I love to work with them.” There are so many years of experience. Over the years, they’ve witnessed the entire process, from opening cans and warming them up to making ceviche. It’s thrilling to watch the changes and have the trust and support of a team which includes people who have been working here for over 25 years. I don’t need to be an expert in the kitchen or to do their job as well as they do. I can trust them to take care of their tasks. “We’ve accomplished so much together.”
Sconce, his team, and the Brimmers are among the most loved members. Sconce, who is always humble, insists this love for him boils down to a simple truth. “We have food.” “Don’t you love it when people serve you food?”
Nicky DeCesare is Brimmer’s associate director of marketing and communications. She loves to go behind the scenes in order to highlight our incredible faculty and staff. She is a foodie who loves Brimmer’s lunch. She was excited to learn about Michael’s journey in the kitchen and how he and his team contribute to the positive culture at the School.