February 2 — 2:26 pm, 2016

Inside a School District cafeteria: The man who keeps it humming

At South Philly High, Sal Taylor focuses on offering food that’s tasty and attractive and keeping the atmosphere relaxed.

sal taylor charles mostoller Charles Mostoller

With hundreds of teenagers to feed every day, Sal Taylor must answer to a long list of public officials: his principal, his school district, the Health Department, and the federal government.

But it’s the students of South Philadelphia High School who are his true customers, the kitchen manager says, and in many ways they’re no different from customers anywhere.

“We all eat with our eyes,” said Taylor. “If it doesn’t look good, they don’t want it.”

Senior Rodney Davidson-Kay can confirm. “Soon as I come to the line, I start looking,” he said. “Little hairs, or somebody wiped their nose – I don’t like that.”

The lanky aspiring musician is one of about 700 students who eat every day in Southern’s basement cafeteria – a bright and welcoming space designed like a modern food court, with separate stations for hot meals, sandwiches, pizza, and salads.

When it comes to lunch, what Davidson-Kay wants is simple: a clean space, tasty food, plenty of choices, and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

That’s what District officials say students everywhere want, and Davidson-Kay says the man they call “Mr. Sal” delivers.

“I’m going to tell you now, when I come in and smell those chicken nuggets, it goes down!” Davidson-Kay laughed. “Since the Gallery closed, it’s the next best thing, the food court. Everybody chilling and talking to their friends.”

That’s music to Taylor’s ears. “Sounds good to me,” he said.

A Southern graduate himself, Taylor got into the business because he loves food. For him, seeing people enjoy eating is the ultimate reward.

That’s not always an easy result to get from a school kitchen, and not just because mandated low-fat cheese can render pizza as tasty (and as popular) as cardboard. Most of the big decisions about menus and ingredients are beyond his control. Like an Army chef, Taylor is the last link in a long chain of command.

But he is also the one responsible for much of what the students experience personally: how the food looks, how it tastes, how they’re treated by staff. Every day he makes decisions that can help make or break a student’s day – or a school’s.

“We try to be mentors,” he said. “We are their parents – maybe not their biological parents, but we have kids in school, too.”

A long day

Taylor’s days start at 6:30 a.m. He is the first of his staff of seven to arrive, and the first task is breakfast.

The kids will gladly eat, Taylor said, but they rarely make it to school before classes start.

“Grab-and-go” carts in the upstairs hallways around 8 a.m. turned out to be the best solution, so he makes sure they’re ready. Soon after they roll, he’ll turn to lunch and the rest of the day’s business: orders, inventory, and deliveries.

He’ll also check in with the principal, Kimlime Chek-Taylor, to make sure he’s up to speed on the day’s events.

Taylor has to know everything, said Wayne Grasela, the District’s senior vice president for food services: “What’s the bell schedule? Is testing going on?”

“When the students are ready to eat, we have to be ready to serve them.”

By 9:30 a.m., Taylor’s staff is cooking meals in Southern’s full-service kitchen (one of 107 in the District) and prepping the service stations out front. The first students arrive at 10 a.m. The last won’t leave until 1:15.

Throughout that time, Taylor will be circulating, directing, pitching in. Among his tasks is to keep an eye on what’s popular and what isn’t. Sometimes, he said, the food just needs a little TLC – an extra garnish on the pizza, a fresh presentation for the sandwiches – before students will warm up to it. “Once you start with a little love with the food, they’re going to take it,” he said.

Food is only part of his responsibility; efficiency is another. He’s not in charge of order in the cafeteria itself – lunchtime aides and security handle that – but he must keep the lines moving briskly while the atmosphere stays relaxed and respectful.

That’s a delicate but vital balance, said Otis Hackney, former principal of South Philadelphia High.

“You want to keep it moving in the way so that kids get a breather,” said Hackney, who recently left the high school to become Mayor Kenney’s top education adviser.

Backed-up lines can mean scuffles and trouble. A smooth operation means kids can get their food, find their friends, and “be themselves for a minute,” Hackney said.

“The rest of the day they’re in class being managed. Lunchtime is precious to them.”

Taylor knows that well. He likes giving students options, seeing them build their own sandwiches and salads.

“That’s the part they like, because they’re in control,” he said.

They can be a handful, and not always respectful. “They might say something,” Taylor said. He tells staff: “Be mindful. The way you treat them is the way they’re going to treat you. You can’t holler at them. You have to talk to them.”

And once they’re gone, it’s back to paperwork.

“He’s got to close his books out,” said Grasela. “If a child eats a meal that’s not properly accounted for, we just threw $3 in the trash.”

An unexpected return

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?’”

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