Taylor has spent over 30 years cooking and managing kitchens. His first job was with a caterer at age 18. “I fell in love with food, and it went from there,” he said.
He studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, and eventually held such positions as shift supervisor for Au Bon Pain restaurants and bakery manager for Giant Supermarkets.
He didn’t expect to end up back at his alma mater.
“My sister was like, ‘You need to fill out an application!’” he recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Man, that’s kind of corny.’”
But when his young daughter took sick, he needed flexible daytime hours.
“I had to make a decision for her,” he said. Taylor joined the kitchen staff in 2002. Eventually he rose to become kitchen manager, a full-time position; he has come to love the job.
What he serves isn’t up to him, and that has its drawbacks. “I like the fatty foods, but we can’t offer them,” he said. Federal regulations control ingredients and portion sizes. The School District sets his daily menus.
But Taylor can tinker. He can tweak recipes to make them tastier and arrange his orders to maximize the most popular items. He can’t serve chicken nuggets every day, but he can spruce up a pizza with vegetables, or a stir-fry with sauces.
And he can make sure everything looks good out front.
“Everything we do is regulated, from farm to fork,” said Grasela. “You need a manager like Sal to take what he has, still make it compliant, but make it attractive, make it tasty, and still keep the nutritional value.”
As a former principal, Hackney knows well how important Southern’s lunchroom is.
It was there that years of tensions between African American and Asian students exploded in 2009; a series of attacks on Asian students injured dozens. Hackney was hired to bring order to the school, and Taylor’s smooth operation was essential.
“It was one less thing for me to think about,” Hackney said.
Lunch was always on time, snacks were always ready for test days and afterschool events, and students were always treated with “respect and dignity,” Hackney said.
What’s more, the food was always good. “I never got a lot of complaints from the kids,” Hackney said. “And trust me, when they hate something, they tell you.”
Taylor himself is glad the Southern he came back to is not the Southern he left.
When he was a student there in the 1970s, high school cafeterias were so bad that the District was closing them citywide. Lunch for Taylor meant sneaking out to the McDonald’s across Broad Street.
Today, that McDonald’s won’t even let students in. For many kids on many days, Taylor’s kitchen offers their best shot at a good meal.
That brings responsibilities – and rewards – that Taylor never had in his previous jobs with caterers and supermarkets. He welcomes the challenge. He may not be able to use real cheese on his pizzas, but he can make a real impact on young lives.
“Some of the kids actually don’t eat when they’re home,” Taylor said. “Their pride won’t let them tell. But you can tell because they will say: ‘Can I get another?’”