The meals served to HISD students undertake a unique journey before arriving at school cafeterias, and Research and Development Chef Christopher Keegan is an essential part of that process.
Keegan is responsible for producing tasty creations that are nutritious, cost-effective, easy to prepare at the school level, and have accessible ingredients.
“I enjoy coming up with dishes that don’t look like school food,” said Keegan, who works for HISD’s Nutrition Services. “I’m constantly looking through magazines and cookbooks. We’re starting to do more international dishes, and we’re also looking at some vegan recipes.”
Keegan started his career in restaurants, then worked as the corporate chef for Uncle Ben’s rice. He also spent time working at a flavor company.
“Those two experiences really prepared me for working at HISD,” Keegan said. “I learned research and development at Uncle Ben’s. And working at the flavor company taught me how to develop flavor systems that could enhance a product.”
Nutrition Services Executive Chef David Husbands said Keegan’s expertise is flavor development.
“He’s a master,” Husbands said. “I’ve been working in this business for 30 years and have rarely come across a person that has that skill set. He’s a food scientist.”
Keegan explained that he likes to use seasonings or spices to “bridge” two ingredients. An example of this, he said, is adding cinnamon or nutmeg to hot chocolate. Another example, he said, is layering garlic, using both caramelized garlic and raw garlic at different times during the cooking process.
Husbands said recipes can take days or even weeks to perfect. Keegan agreed, noting that their work takes time.
“Sometimes I have to go through 25 different formulas before finding one that works,” Keegan said. “So, turning an idea into a finished product is really exciting. When you finally see it being served in the schools, that’s a significant moment. It’s quite satisfying.”
Keegan said he receives valuable feedback from students, especially fourth- and fifth-graders.
“They’re old enough to know what they like or don’t like and they’re able to describe why,” Keegan said.
“They’re so honest and open. They will tell you the truth.”
Despite the successes he’s experienced with menu development, Keegan said there’s always room for improvement.
“It doesn’t have to necessarily mean a total change. It can be something as simple as how you cook it or how you cut the vegetables or what products you use,” Keegan said. “You can’t ever settle.”