Reimagining School Lunches
Ecology School Chef Looks to Cook Without Fire
At a bend in the Saco River just west of where it crosses I-95 and snakes into the Atlantic Ocean, longtime catering chef Rich O’Brien stands staring out an unfinished window, contemplating cooking from scratch for 300 people with no fire.
Wearing a hard hat instead of a toque, O’Brien inspects the wooden outline of a structure that will soon envelop a commercial kitchen that completely eschews combustible fuels like oil and gas. He’s more jazzed about the plethora of local ingredients he’s planning on working with than worried about the lack of flames in the frame.
“I think a lot about timing, about the recovery time needed when you’re cooking with electric,” he says. The time it takes for the surface to come back up to the right temperature, or recover, after you’ve placed raw food into it can be an issue if you’ve got hundreds of hungry kids waiting for pancakes. “But those adjustments are a minor tradeoff when you factor in the larger goal of this place,” says O’Brien, whose catering company has supplied meals to The Ecology School at its various locations in the Saco area.
Since its founding in 1998, The Ecology School has offered short-term (a day, a week, a semester) immersive courses to schoolchildren, families, and civic and corporate groups, all designed to connect the dots between healthy ecological systems and the nutritional (and sustainably sourced) food on their plates. The $14.1 million green campus that The Ecology School is currently building on the grounds of the historic 105-acre River Bend Farm will demonstrate the connection between sustainable ecosystems and human dwellings.
It will do this by following the strictest of mandates. The Living Building Challenge, one of the world’s most rigorous green building standards, defines any aspect of a project that can reflect a symbiotic relationship shared by a structure, its surrounding environment, and the humans who will use it. The framework sets where a building is sited; how water and energy is collected and used; how the health of the people using the building is fostered; what types of materials are used in construction and where they are sourced; how equal access is built into the structure; and what the building’s overall aesthetic is.
“The Living Building Challenge draws these beautiful analogies [between plants and buildings],” says Jesse Thompson, principal of Kaplan Thompson Architects, one of four Maine-based architectural firms collaborating on The Ecology School’s design. “If we could make buildings function like plants, we would be in great shape. They would be beautiful. They would get all their energy from the sun. And when their life draws to a close, they would decay in a way that enriches the soil.”
Since plants don’t need to burn oil and gas to grow, neither can a Living Building Challenge–compliant project. The specs do allow for sacred fire, so an outdoor, wood-fired pizza or bread oven for occasional use is allowed. But day to day, The Ecology School will be powered (and subsequently fed) by over 700 on-premise solar panels.
O’Brien’s kitchen—although designed by architect Ryan Kanteres of Simons Architects to be highly efficient—will still be the school’s largest energy draw. Kanteres and Thompson estimate the kitchen’s biggest energy suck will be the Champion 44-PRO high-temperature dishwasher, which will require as much energy to operate annually as the entire dormitory will. High-temperature dishwashers use 180-degree water instead of chemicals to sanitize dishware and cutlery. Heating water to that temperature requires a lot of energy.
O’Brien says his team, which could comprise as many as 10 when the kitchen is running full tilt, will likely only use the facility’s single-induction burners to cook single-serving meals when a student has specific dietary needs. Electric soup kettles, tilting skillets, and grills will be tapped much more often. And he’s looking to use multiple combination ovens—ones that allow him to inject steam into a typically dry-heat cooking method—to efficiently cook everything from dry pasta to locally sourced meats.
As the Ecology School’s newly named operations manager, O’Brien certainly is pleased to know his diners will likely care more than most that their food was prepared using only renewable energy. But as a chef, it’s only natural for him to make sure the local food he serves is as delicious as it is sustainably prepared.
Baked French Toast with Streusel Topping
This recipe was adapted from one that chef Rich O’Brien serves often to Ecology School students. If you would like more texture in the topping, add 1/2 cup Maine Grains Rolled Oats to the streusel mixture.
4 tablespoons butter, plus more for buttering
1 loaf of bread, torn into pieces
2 cups milk
½ cup heavy cream
¾ cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup pastry flour
½ cup Maine Grains sifted whole wheat flour
½ cup brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
Maple syrup, to serve
Butter a large ceramic baking dish with butter. Place torn bread in it. In a large measuring cup, combine eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla. Pour the mixture over the bread. Cover pans and refrigerate them overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350°. Remove pan from the refrigerator and uncover. Combine 4 tablespoons butter, flours, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a food processor. Pulse until the streusel topping looks granular. Sprinkle the topping over the bread. Bake until the custard is set and the topping is lightly browned, 30–35 minutes. Serve hot with maple syrup.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.