“I’m feeling relaxed, a little lonely,” Christina Napolitan mused, “but I’m really into the idea of staying in bed until after the sun comes up.”
Just four days after her final festive send-off from her job as Food Service Manager at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, Christina certainly looked relaxed, wearing a rose-colored open-neck jersey, sipping coffee at the Black Dog Cafe, dreaming about what’s next. After 14 years of turning out hearty lunches for an ever-expanding throng of hungry kids and grown-ups, arriving in the kitchen at 6:45 am Monday through Friday, working hard and fast all day, this sudden leisure is indeed a big change.
In 1996 the fledgling school, packed into trailers off State Road in West Tisbury, had plenty of hope and creativity, but no kitchen. Nonetheless, the lack of facilities did not stop the determined charter schoolers from moving ahead with a healthy lunch program. And Christina Napolitan, talented Cordon Bleu-trained chef, advocate of healthy eating, and mother of a Charter School student, was clearly the woman for the job.
In turn, the job was perfect for her. After years of professional cooking experience, Ms. Napolitan was rearing two daughters on her own and ready for a change. “I realized I could either raise my children or work in restaurants,” she said in a conversation last week.
Ms. Napolitan’s oldest girl, Lucy Lee Savage, was a member of the school’s initial seventh grade — “a charter starter,” as those first students are known. The younger, Mary Sage Napolitan, would enroll when the school added lower grades. Running the lunch program gave their mother the chance to be part of her children’s world while making new use of her skills and experience, developing healthy, kid-friendly meals, and promoting good nutrition among youngsters. The perfect job? Yes…and no.
Without a kitchen, Ms. Napolitan cooked in off-campus facilities, lugging the finished lunches to school in her Volvo station wagon. But despite inconvenience, the rewards were great.
“Watching the children evolve into adventurous eaters was so much fun,” Ms. Napolitan said. “Give them something they’ve never had before and they like it, they’ll ask for it again.”
She established a weekly cycle. Monday was pasta day, Tuesday soup, Wednesday bagels or sandwiches with salad. Thursday was the much beloved pizza day. Friday was “Dinner for Lunch” — think baked chicken, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, quesadillas and beans! The youngsters loved it. Everybody had a favorite day.
“It’s a trick to make food that conforms to federal and state nutrition standards and still make it something kids like to eat,” said Paul Karasik, part-time development director and a founder of the school. “But not only do they want to eat it, it’s part of what they look forward to coming to school every day.
“Lunch is in the middle of the school day and at the heart of the school. It brings everybody together, and everybody looks forward to it,” said Mr. Karasik, who confided that he will miss Ms. Napolitan’s Butternut Squash Soup.
Cordon Bleu to Charter School
After many summers in Edgartown with her family, Ms. Napolitan came here to waitress at Lou’s Worry Lounge while waiting to enroll at the prestigious Cordon Bleu Cooking School in London. She went to school but returned after graduation, this time to stay.
For those lucky enough to have supped at Helios in the Art Workers Guild years ago, it was Christina Napolitan’s delectable spanokopita and moussaka on the menu. Fans still occasionally commission her to make a favorite dish from Helios days.
“My first job after graduating from a French cooking school was in a Greek restaurant,” she laughed.
Many remember Ms. Napolitan’s famous Italian Nights when she was dinner chef at the Black Dog Tavern a few years later. Having studied with Marcella Hazan in Venice and Bologna, “I was full of Italian ideas,” she said.
Taking a break from restaurants to focus on her children, Ms. Napolitan cooked privately for a number of Vineyarders. Then she was enticed by Janet King to design a menu and work in the Ritz Cafe’s new kitchen, a hugely successful enterprise, she recalled.
Even with all these commercial successes, it seemed that Ms. Napolitan found her true culinary home at the Charter School. She helped design the kitchen and labored over complex state regulations and paperwork. Modest though the kitchen was, to Ms. Napolitan it was luxury. Best of all, she could look out the window while preparing food and see children tending the school garden.
Ms. Napolitan is a passionate cheerleader for the Island Grown Schools project that brings gardening experience and fresh vegetables to Vineyard students. Equally enthusiastic about the Island Grown Initiative, which promotes local produce, she is thrilled by all the just-picked vegetables being served in schools these days.
It’s the wonders Ms. Napolitan worked with the food that elevated the lunches from healthy to awesome. Quick to find creative ways to work within governmental nutrition guidelines, the talented chef came up with tasty uses for the free surplus state “commodities.” Student favorites included corn chowder with grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta with pesto and vegetables, kale soup, burritos, “and they loved calzones!” Tofu Sesame Salad Dressing was a hit. Scrumptious desserts were fruit-based, like banana bread or apple crisp with whole grain crust.
“Every lunch was spectacular,” school director Bob Moore said. “Everything she put on a plate everybody really liked.” He said that Ms. Napolitan had wonderful relationships with the students and was “way ahead of the curve” in championing local produce years ago. The two always arrived at school early and Mr. Moore took pleasure in hearing the sounds of food preparation in the kitchen as he worked. “It was a nice, secure feeling,” he said. “The cook was in the house.”
Ms. Napolitan’s final week was a flurry of good wishes. It culminated in an assembly late last month complete with videotaped testimonials, an original song, heaps of praise, and loving gifts.
She, in turn, advised the students to be kind in their daily interactions and finally, “Eat your vegetables.”
Modest about all the accolades, Ms. Napolitan credited the extremely supportive Charter School parents and staff, and her able assistant, Theresa Barwick, for helping her succeed.
Although Ms Napolitan is gone, no one at the Charter School is starving. Chandler Rothbard has taken over as lunch chef, chosen from nearly 20 well-qualified applicants. He brings diverse experience from cooking for troops in Iraq to being a chef at a high-end Texas restaurant and the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah. He worked with Ms. Napolitan for a week and she left him her priceless recipe stash.
But it may take a while for the new chef to win the trust of the students who insisted that Ms. Napolitan come back one more time to show Mr. Rothbard exactly how to make her chicken Caesar salad wrap.
Ms. Napolitan is looking forward to taking leisurely strolls through New York City museums, visiting her daughter at college and her dad at home, and writing a cookbook one day. But right now she is excited about taking a winter off, “having some time to think about where I’d like to go from here.” In spring she plans to plant her garden, something she’s missed with her packed and exhausting work schedule.
And the school will continue to be part of Ms. Napolitan’s life. She said, “I made lifelong friends there. Once you’re a member of the Charter School family, you’re always a member. I feel the door is always open and any project I would dream up to do with the kids would get a great reception.”
For one, Ms. Napolitan envisions making a cookbook with the students. “It’s a good fundraiser for the school,” she said, “and it would be fun.”