Nourishing Ourselves at Winsor: A Conversation about Food

September 8, 2022—Wellness Department Head Amanda Santos Valenzuela and Culinary Director Chef Heather took the stage at all-school Assembly to share their presentation from the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools (ICGS) Global Forum this summer: “Nourishing Ourselves: Creating a Positive Food Culture at School.”

Before working at catering companies and restaurants around the Monterey Peninsula, Chef Heather trained at the California Culinary Academy. Now with FLIK Independent School Dining, she "stumbled into school dining" and after 15 years has never looked back. Although she started as Culinary Director at Winsor for the 2021–2022 school year, students were excited to learn that Chef Heather actually worked as a sous chef at Winsor in the early 2000s. 

Introducing her culinary philosophy, Chef Heather shared, “In our kitchen, we love to travel, cook seasonally, and operate sustainably.” The three pillars to her approach are education, communication, and celebration. 

From Hispanic Heritage Month to Diwali, “last year we were able to visit 34 different countries in the Dining Room. The spices, the region, the culture behind it—I want to be as authentic as possible,” she said as she explained how she rigorously researches cuisines.

Whether it’s classroom visits that increase communication or the 2-way comment board outside the Dining Room—students write in color and she responds in black marker—Chef Heather strives to create a positive food dialogue in the school. “I can’t wait to get into this year’s classes to see what is important to you,” she told the audience. 

Creating memories through food is one way she wants to help the community “celebrate everything.” Explaining how taste, smell, and touch can invoke memories from years past, she shared a memory of making strawberry jam with her grandmother and how sauteing onions in butter reminds her of her mother’s pierogis. Students email Chef Heather with menu ideas and also give feedback throughout the year. “Receiving the comment ‘I felt seen in the community here’ brought me to tears,” shared Chef Heather, as it is her wish to make community members feel seen through food.

Part of that is celebration—from Spirit Week to Pi Day to April Fools’ Day—and part of that is collaboration with student groups, like menus for Hanukkah and Lunar New Year. “I need you guys to know that we have food available for you from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every day,” Chef Heather said. She understands that students need food to get through their long days and after-school activities. 

The kitchen is “working to become as green as we possibly can,” she shared, while discussing new initiatives. The Dining Room removed trays to cut down on water use, and composting is happening in the kitchen to support Winsor’s new kitchen garden. Additionally, the kitchen will be moving to a new self-serve model later this school year in an effort to decrease lines, wait times, and food waste. 

Chef Heather admitted to being nervous while speaking in front of a crowd and shared that she was using a cupcake-shaped stress ball while standing on stage. At the end of her presentation she said, “I made it,” and students enthusiastically jumped up to give her a standing ovation.

In turn, Ms. Valenzuela asked the auditorium, “How does food impact your day?” Citing statistics on body image and eating disorders, Ms. Valenzuela explained how Winsor plans to change the narrative through Wellness Department courses that tackle topics such as accessing information, analyzing influences, building awareness, advocating for yourself, making decisions, and working on interpersonal communication. “There is not a right way to fuel your body,” she said, “Food is fun, and we want food to be a fun social experience.”

Looking at the year ahead, Ms. Valenzuela shared a road map of things students can anticipate such as departmental collaborations, parent workshops, trainings (for counselors, faculty, staff, and students), a growing kitchen garden, pop-up food education, nutrition for athletes, and so much more.