The 3 p.m. bell rang and students scurried out of class. Soon after, a group of five girls peeked into the kitchen at Lincoln Orens Middle School in Island Park. “Hey Mr. S,” one said. “Can we get some forks?” Another held up a birthday cake, indicating what the utensils were intended for.
Chef George Schneider — the new food services director for the Island Park School District — quickly got up, retrieved a handful of plastic forks and handed them to the students. “You’re a real O.G.,” the girl said, referring to original gangster, a slang term used, in this case, for an older person who is still hip.
“I’m the original O.G!” Schneider, 60, shot back. The girls giggled, perhaps understanding the redundancy, and ran off to enjoy the cake.
After 100 days on the job, the Culinary Institute of America graduate and 45-year veteran of the food services industry is still getting used to the guidelines and regulations of the school system. His belief in the power of good food, however, is bringing some fresh new ideas and meals to both Island Park school cafeterias.
Wearing a traditional chef’s uniform and a blue Islanders cap, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Locust Valley native and Baldwin resident barely fits into his 6-by-4-foot office. As the food services director, he is driven by the philosophy that a meal can bring anyone together.
Schneider got his start in the food industry at 14, when he spent his summers in high school working at the Bonanza Stand, a 100-year-old hot dog stand in Oyster Bay. In 1973, his father — a lifelong postal worker — told him he would be a postmaster. Schneider replied, “I don’t think so.” Instead, at 17, he decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park location the next year.
After getting his associate’s degree in the culinary arts, he loaded his dog and possessions into a Chevrolet K5 Blazer and headed west.
Originally planning to trek to Alaska to work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline — built from 1974 to 1977 — where the “big bucks” were, he instead ended up in Lake Tahoe, Calif. “That’s where the truck stopped,” he said. He had run out of money.
There, Schneider put his cooking skills to work at the Northstar California Resort. He stayed there for four years until he got a job at the Santa Cruz Bar and Grill, about 90 miles south of San Francisco. There, he was the executive chef for six years.
While working in Santa Cruz, Schneider hired a local baker, who one day asked if he could help her with a cooking job she had in San Francisco. He said he’d love to, but was going to a Grateful Dead concert that night. “Well that’s pretty ironic, because I’m cooking for them tonight,” she replied.
“So you want me to help you cook for the band?” he asked, quickly accepting the chance to cook for one of his favorite musical groups.
After the concert series, Frieda Grajonca, mother of famous Grateful Dead promoter Bill Graham, approached Schneider and offered him a part-time job.
Between 1978 and 1984, he travelled around the West Coast and cooked for Graham and the band, as well as other acts like Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Juice Newton.
After 10 years in California, the Santa Cruz Bar and Grill was bought out and he was let go. He hopped back into his K5 Blazer and returned to New York, where he worked in catering for Ogden Food Travel Services — now Sky Chefs — at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Cooking roughly 1,800 meals a day, Schneider learned to cook in bulk, a skill that serves him well in Island Park. After 20 years in airline catering, he said, he couldn’t return to the demanding restaurant business. He instead pursued a newspaper advertisement that the Island Park School District was looking for a new food services director. “The rest is history,” he joked.
As an outsider working in a tight-knit community, Schneider said he was initially met with skepticism. “People don’t like change,” he noted. “It has to be done slowly and has to be done for a reason.” But eventually, Schneider said his staff of Island Park natives warmed up to him, and he credits his chef Maritza Salcedo with bringing many of his new ideas to life.
One of his main goals is to have every item on the menu made from scratch.
Since food vendors have already gone through the bidding process school districts are required to go through, he has had to be innovative with the food that gets delivered to him.
Right now, two dishes per week are made from scratch, Schneider said, and he has introduced homemade sauces for others. “They show me broccoli,” he said. “I see soup.” Cream of broccoli has become a cafeteria favorite, according to him.
He has even changed the menu visually, adding leprechauns for March. “You eat with your eyes first,” Schneider said. “I thought it needed more pizzazz.”
Additionally, using Excel, he has made all of the food services records electronic, which was a months-long process. Now, through his system, the school has access to records of all the expenses and profits for food services, which will take much of the guesswork out of putting together future budgets.
Despite successes, he’s still working out some of the particulars of the school system. For example, he went to Staples to pick up ink refills for his school printer, not realizing that even small items need to go through a bidding process.
Still, in addition to the goal of making more menu items from scratch, he would like to help start a garden, where Island Park students can learn to grow fresh vegetables.
Sometimes he watches with satisfaction at the kids sitting and laughing in the cafeteria, which he occasionally still calls a dining room. “I like bringing people together,” he said.