“I see the Dining Hall as an extension of the classroom,” says Shore’s new Executive Chef and Nutrition Director, Laura Wood. “The idea is that you’re feeding the whole student—you can’t learn without being nourished.” At the same time, Wood says, the Dining Hall is itself a place for learning. “I like to expose kids to new foods and fresh ingredients they might not be familiar with, and I love to watch as, over time, they see something again and again until eventually they might try it and find that they like it. I really believe that eating a variety of healthy foods is a life skill.”
Wood has a background in fine dining, and came to Shore on a mission to revamp the food program with an eye toward quality, health and nutrition, and sustainability. Working closely with her kitchen team, she prepares all lunch offerings from scratch, featuring one hearty hot dish each day along with numerous grab-and-go salads and sides and a rotating menu of homemade soups. Recent hot dishes have included sausage and vegetable ratatouille, herbed chicken with tomato and cucumber salsa, and roasted pork loin served with roasted sweet potatoes. Soups have included creations such as curried chicken with lentils, beef and black bean chili, and squash puree. In the grab-and-go area children and adults alike have been surprised and pleased to find packaged items such as caesar salad with chicken, yogurt, and sides such as pasta and quinoa salads. The positive reviews pile up after each lunch service—unlike the empty food containers from salads and sides: they’re compostable.
Wood labels her cuisine “veggie-forward,” and relies on local purveyors such as Brooksby Farm in Peabody for fresh, seasonal ingredients. “Fall is a great time to be cooking—we get great tomatoes, great squash, corn, everything. It’s all ready right now. And as the seasons unfold and we get closer to winter, we’ll do more comfort food. It’s just very honest cooking—no bells and whistles, but scratch cooking with good, fresh ingredients. We try to keep it as local as we can—though admittedly New England is tricky in the wintertime. But in the spring, there’s nothing like when the strawberries are in season. To me that’s the sign that there are better things to come. And that changing of the seasons really dictates how we create our menus.”
Wood draws on her Italian heritage for inspiration. “I grew up in a family where we always had a garden, everyone was in the kitchen all the time, and things just revolved around food and traditions.” That upbringing spurred a lifelong interest in the science and nutrition of food, a belief in the importance of protecting the integrity of fresh ingredients, and a love for the magic of cooking simply. “Often it’s the little things that make food great. You don’t have to drown dishes in heavy sauces for them to taste good. Take a simple tomato—it’s already a perfect thing. You pick it off the vine and smell the stem, and it takes you right to summer.”
Of her arrival at Shore at the start of yet another year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wood says that ongoing safety measures have made it difficult to offer everything she eventually wants to see on the lunch menu, such as a fully-stocked self-serve salad and sandwich bar. Still, she says, she’s felt welcomed by a Shore community that is grateful for the changes she’s brought to the school’s food program. “Everybody here leads with kindness, and everybody is on board with putting kids first. It’s a great environment to be in.”