His name is Mr. Gray, but his foods are colorful – and healthy


Ben Koo

A look behind the scenes of the Malvern cafeteria.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about something we do every day at Malvern – having a meal. Even though the people who handle our food are right in front serving it to us, we don’t bother to ask some of the questions we have.

Executive Chef Mr. Rick Conley walks into Stewart Hall at 5:30 in the morning. It’s too early even for the sun to show up, but the newest cafeteria staff member Sous Chef Mr. Shawn Buchanan is there with him to assist making breakfast. Conley puts the long drive from Cape May, New Jersey, behind himself and readies for a much longer day ahead of him.

“I put a lot of pride into what I make. I’m not going to buy junk, and serve it. If it’s not to my standards, I’m not serving it. I’m a proud chef. I’ve been in this business for over 25 years.”

-Mr. Rick Conley

“Shawn, I need you to take the pork loins and carve them down,” Conley orders. There’s no time to waste. Breakfast is in a couple hours. Then, break a little after that. And then lunch is not too long after break.

Conley needs to feed hundreds of people today, as he does every day. He doesn’t get a chance to sit down until the day is over.

“I’m always trying to stay one step ahead,” Conley said. “And as break is going on, I prepare for lunch. I’m preparing for lunch all day actually… If we had roast pork today, I prepared the pork loins yesterday, and roasted them so I can slice them today. It’s all about preparation and execution.”

It’s lunch time now, and hundreds of teenage boys crowd up behind the first register. It seems like a popular item is on the menu today. Unfortunately, it is not the Super Cookie. However, chicken tenders still get the guys in a frenzy.

“[Chicken tenders] are a big seller,” Director of Dining Services Mr. Tom Gray notes. “That’s about as big as it gets here. Even pizza takes a backseat to chicken tenders.”

Many of the younger Malvern students may not remember the cafeteria bestseller Super Cookies. They were last seen in the 2012-2013 school year, and their disappearance from the break menu provoked complaints from cookie-passionate seniors.

“Well, Super Cookies were the highlight of my [freshman] year,” senior Jimmy Faunce said. “It was a once in a blue moon kind of thing. Teachers would actually let you go early from class sometimes [for them.] There would kind of be a little bit of pushing and shoving… a brawl to get there. As soon as you got it though, it was just like the most amazing feeling… it would just melt in your mouth. It just tasted sooo good. It’s one of the biggest things I miss.”

Gray disclosed some information regarding the Super Cookies.

“It basically came down to the provider stopped carrying them,” he said. “We still have regular cookies. When the provider stopped carrying them, I wasn’t unhappy about it. They weren’t that good anyway.”

“I don’t know why the kids love them,” Gray said, “but I’ll keep an eye out for them.”

Mrs. Diane Kime, Gray’s assistant and head cashier, prepares for the rush of hungry Malvernians coming to the registers. It’s her responsibility to make sure everything is in order with everyday finances.

In the recent year, Kime has seen sudden changes to cafeteria staff and school schedules. New staff members have joined, some others have departed in the past year, and the school’s shift to a modified block schedule was a major change.

Kime has learned to adapt to the changes over time, but she won’t get used to the one thing that never changes: the boys’ rowdiness in cafeteria lines.

“If the students could be a little more calmer waiting in line, that would help. They don’t need to be out of control… Everyone’s gonna get served. There’s plenty of food for everybody,” she said.

Waiting in the crowd of impatient young men are two seniors, Anthony Ciro and Kevin Munyan. Unlike many of their peers, they make the nutrition of their meals a priority over the taste. But, they, too, are thinking about the chicken tenders. Who could pass them up?

They make use of their senior privileges and skip the line as the cafeteria opens up. A huddle forms around the chicken tender counter, but Munyan is eyeing the bananas.

“I always look for the healthier stuff,” Munyan said. “Then, whatever tastes good, because I found that [Malvern] does have pretty good food. I came from Great Valley Middle School and [Malvern] definitely has better food than there. It kind of depends what they have that day, and like I said, I always look for the healthier stuff like bananas or the chicken sandwiches. I always get those.”

Ciro walks over to the salad bar and examines the topping choices of the day.

“[The salad bar] could use some enhancing, like grilled chicken on the side, so you can make a chicken salad, not just leaf salad,” he said. Ciro appreciates the fact that there is a salad bar. With all the unhealthy foods that one could choose, like pizza, [diet] soda, and burgers.

“I wouldn’t say it’s healthy across the board. I would say that they give you the option of what to put on your plate,” Ciro said. “You could go for three slices of pizza or you could just have some lettuce and tomatoes, or a chicken sandwich.”

Health instructor and swimming coach Jay Schiller praised the cafeteria menus.

“I gotta say this: Mr. Gray does a nice job in offering [food choices],” Schiller said. “Breakfast – there’s always fruit, yogurt and granola. There’s eggs, with protein, the sausage and bacon. I’m a fan that they offer a lot of breakfast options. Lunch time – same thing – they have a salad bar everyday… They always offer something like plain chicken, which is one of the best proteins you can eat. They offer a pasta option, which has good carbs to provide fuel for the afternoon.”

Students outside the cafeteria staff only know so much about the food they eat. Munyan has some apprehension about the food options. “I know nothing, and that makes me a little more cautious about what I eat there,” he said. “I generally know what’s in a banana, or yogurt. But the chicken sandwich, I don’t know like how much fat is in it, or what it’s fried in.”

One concern is the safety of consuming artificial sweeteners. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has labeled the most common sweetener for diet sodas – aspartame – as unsafe. The FDA has approved its commercial use but studies are still trying to confirm the status of the chemical. Past studies on animals, such as rats, indicate negative effects on their health and lifespan. However, many of these experiments are inconclusive on its effect on humans.

Mr. Gray is unsure of his opinion on artificial sweeteners. “I don’t know much about that, [though] I have looked into to some beverages of natural cane sugar, and I just haven’t followed through with that yet. They aren’t as easily available as I’d hoped… it hasn’t made itself too easy to present it to administration. I still think that sugar is real bad for us.”

Whether sugars or sweeteners are the greater evil, it does not concern Mr. Schiller. “The best advice is to drink water. Water is the most important nutrient we need to consume. I don’t think we drink enough water,” he said.

Gray said, “Just to be fair, we’re always moving in the direction of trying to put restaurant quality food, out there – Rick [Conley] and I, for the boys. And a lot of the times it seems like fast food, but we’re continuously striving to put out the kind of food you’d get in a restaurant, we’re trying to do as much as we can from scratch.”

Conley makes an effort to prepare foods healthily. For example, he tends to bake foods, such as the chicken, insteading of frying them. He also uses lighter milk and creams when dairy ingredients are needed. In addition to nutritional considerations, keeping food allergies in mind is another priority. Making foods as gluten-free as possible is one way of practicing this.

“Putting the menu together, it’s pretty much a process between me and Rick,” Gray said. “We’ll sit down and go through the menu cycles. We pretty much make it up like a month ahead of time. We’re basing it on what has gone and what has been successful and whatever new ideas, if we see something that we think might go [successfully.]”

“I put a lot of pride into what I make,” Conley said. “I’m not going to buy junk, and serve it. If it’s not to my standards, I’m not serving it. I’m a proud chef. I’ve been in this business for over 25 years.”

“I don’t want someone to have something [I made] and say ‘this is terrible,’” he said. “That’s not gonna sleep well with me at all.”