This past fall, DREAM launched its new from-scratch food program, providing more than 1,000 DREAM Mott Haven and DREAM Charter High School students with free fresh and healthy breakfasts, lunches, and snacks each day. No small feat, this effort has been undertaken in partnership with Brigaid, a team of professional chefs who provide strategic program assessments, hands-on staff training, and full-time chef placements to empower institutional foodservice programs with the culinary expertise needed to consistently serve wholesome and high-quality meals.
The team at DREAM is led by Brigaid Chef Persefoni Vordokas, who brings with her over a decade’s worth of experience in restaurants across the country. Learn more about Chef Perse and DREAM’s from-scratch food program in the Q&A below.
Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
DREAM: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Chef Persefoni: I was born and raised in Miami. I’m a first-generation American from Greek parents, and I’ve had a large Latin influence in my life from living in Miami. I worked in some restaurants there, some fine dining restaurants, some that have Michelin Stars, and then I got an opportunity two years ago to be the executive chef at a resort out in Telluride, Colorado, where I redid the entire food program, including banquet menus, catering, breakfast, lunch, and apres ski. One of my friends from Telluride ended up getting a job with Brigaid and moved to California, and I got really interested in the work they were doing by following her career. When I saw a position open up in New York, I applied.
DREAM: What made you want to join Brigaid?
CP: Helping kids eat wholesome, nourishing meals at school, and seeing it being done at high volumes, without flavors being compromised. Also seeing how the chefs around the country weren’t scared to try new dishes that aren’t your common chicken nuggets. That definitely pulled me in. And really, after so many years in the restaurant industry, all the hours you work, you ask yourself “what’s the drive? What are you cooking for?” I was never a chef who cared for the merit. For me, it was always about making an impact in the community I was working in.
DREAM: DREAM works to ensure that students have everything they need to pursue their dreams. How does access to quality, healthy food support that mission, in your view?
CP: With access to fresh, healthy meals, kids can be more present and just feel better, because they’re eating better. I started at a juice spot doing smoothie bowls, and I was definitely into the health side of food. I’ve done triathlons, so I’ve always been into nutrition and knowing how food fuels the body. So I think that’s really important, especially with what I’m doing now. It’s also about giving kids choice and agency over what they’re eating. Empowering students to make choices around food can teach them important life lessons.
DREAM: What’s it like working in DREAM’s kitchens vs. working in a professional restaurant?
CP: These are some of the nicest kitchens I’ve ever worked in. They’re so well thought out, and make sense ergonomically. In a kitchen, if things aren’t in the right spot, then a cook is wasting energy on steps back and forth. These kitchens are very well thought out for mass production. We also have the luxury of having seven walk-in refrigerators and freezers in the building, and we have spaces dedicated to certain types of food, like meat, baked goods, fruit, dairy. The majority of food is made from scratch—from doughs to muffins to sauces, so that we can make sure it’s not too much sodium, sugar, etc. Having a set-up like we do at DREAM makes sense for proper product turnover and rotating stock. It’s top-notch, everything is new, it allows us to execute a high volume of meals in an efficient manner, and we can give kids a variety because we have the space to store it—we can plan ahead so that we’re never behind in serving kids their meals.
DREAM: How have the children been reacting to the food?
CP: The younger ones are definitely vocal. Once you give them the platform to talk, they will let you know what they like and don’t like. You build these relationships with them, and when they say they don’t like something, we take that into account. It’s nice to see them light up when they have a choice in the matter. With the older students, you’ll see in their actions if they’re excited about a certain meal. In line, they’ll get so excited. We encourage students to try new things, if they’re comfortable doing so. It’s important to let them know they can ask, to make them feel seen, and to let them know that we’re here for them.
DREAM: What are some of the most popular meals so far?
CP: Pizza is a very popular day. When we do mojo chicken with rice and plantains, that’s a very popular meal. Chopped cheese. They love breakfast for lunch: French toast, sausage, and home fries. We show them that you can do the familiar things in a healthy way—that it’s all about portions and having a balanced plate.
DREAM: What is your favorite meal you’ve made at DREAM so far?
CP: Just last week we served bok choy. Every kid tried it and we got overwhelmingly positive feedback. Chicken fricassee was one of my favorite ones, too, because it’s not something kids get daily. It’s different. Picadillo has also been great. Coming into this new year, I’m going to start playing more with the menu and creating more recipes. Things like Buffalo cauliflower to go with pizza, veggie lo mein and different pastas, different salads, yogurt parfaits, or just switching up the turkey sandwich. Small changes to familiar dishes so students can experience something they never tried before.
DREAM: Why is trying new types of food so important for children?
CP: I think it helps make them more confident when they’re older, so they’re not scared to step outside their comfort zone. It can affect social interactions too—people may feel insecure eating with other people if they’ve never had something. There’s no judgment here in these cafeterias. If you want to try something and see if you like it, that’s totally fine. To give these kids that power, to show them they have an opinion that matters, I think is so big for social skills and confidence.
DREAM: Is there anything else you’d like the DREAM community to know about Brigaid?
CP: Overall, we’re an organization that cares. We don’t subscribe to one definition of “good food” but are really open to helping foodservice teams succeed in achieving their unique goals. We also want to help students understand and appreciate the hard work and talent that goes into school meal operations. DREAM has done a really good job of showcasing that this is a valuable future career for their students who may be interested in this industry. I think it’s a great partnership, and it’s a lot of fun.