Chef Dominique Valadier starts each day at 5:30 a.m., just as the fish market opens in the southern French provincial town of Salon de Provence.
On one particular day, he picks up 20 pounds of fresh, live mussels at the market before heading off to Lycee de l'Emperi, the public high school where he is the cook.
At the school, he prepares meals for about 800 students, using all fresh, local ingredients. The introduction of healthy school lunch programs, like this one, is one major reason France has been able to curb childhood obesity rates after two decades on the rise, according to two recent studies.
From Within 30 Miles
The menu on this day at Valadier's high school: mussels in cream sauce over rice with leeks and stuffed turkey thighs, accompanied by a squash au gratin casserole.
Nothing here is frozen or pre-prepared, Valadier says.
"Voila. This sticker here shows where these mussels came from and when they were harvested," he says. "This guarantees their freshness."
Eyes twinkling and knives flashing, Valadier opens up the plump turkey thighs, cutting out the bones.
The flattened turkey filets are wrapped around a stuffing of ground up parsley, garlic, cheese and smoked pork shoulder. The loaves are then tied with twine and baked for three hours at low temperatures to keep in the juices and flavor. When sliced, they will serve hundreds of students, 10 times the number that could have been fed on the plain turkey thighs. Preparation and proximity are the keys to high quality meals at lower prices, says Valadier.
"We try to get our base products — meat, fish, vegetables — within a 30-mile radius, because there are fewer intermediaries and we can negotiate prices and quality with the producer. These turkeys were raised and slaughtered just near here," Valadier says. "If I have a problem, I'll ask the producer to come see me, and I can guarantee you things will be a lot better the next time!"
Healthy and Cheap
All around the school kitchen, food is cooking in various pots and pans. Gallons of bechamel, a seasoned white sauce, bubble for the squash casserole. A vat of chickpeas boils for homemade hummus. It is hard to believe this is a public school cafeteria and not a three-star restaurant.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Valadier's meals is that they cost the students only $3 a day, less than the typical fast food fare served at many French high schools.
Another way Valadier saves money is by getting maximum use out of every ingredient. He never throws anything away. In one corner of the kitchen, he is boiling down the fish heads, flesh and bones from yesterday's salmon to make a tasty bouillon for today's mussels.
As lunch hour begins and the students file in, Valadier serves them while answering questions about the meal. He reaches across the counter with a forkful of the squash au gratin to give 17-year-old Valentine Biemence a taste. Biemence says she and her friends have all but quit eating lunch at McDonald's and have discovered a lot of new dishes.
"It's all the time different food and very, very good," Biemence says. "People are really happy, because it's really hard now to eat well and cheap."
Investing in the Future
Valadier once worked in the glamorous world of Riviera restaurants. He says he left that life for something more meaningful. Investing in students' well-being is also an act of citizenship, he explains. If young people learn to eat well early on, they will cost the country's health care system a lot less in the future.
He has clearly found his calling here, while winning over the students — and teachers. Danielle Viou teaches drama and English at the high school.
"We are very, very lucky because it's a real project. It's not just doing the cooking, it's a whole concept of educating and taking time and enjoying it," Viou says. "And it's artistic at the same time."