Even as the person responsible for serving lunch to about 1,000 teenagers a day as head of the kitchen at Islip High School, Arlene Leggio aims to please everyone.
But there is one complaint she doesn’t mind at all.
“If they are cranky when they go home in the afternoon and their parents ask them what’s wrong, I hope they say, ‘I just didn’t know what to choose for lunch today,’” she said. “‘There were too many choices.’”
Leggio has run the kitchen at the high school since 2000 and has worked in the district since 1994. She serves no fewer than 17 choices in the school cafeteria each day and focuses on healthy eating. Her cooking has earned her accolades before: two Best Practice awards from the New York State Education Department, which earned her school $5,000; and numerous first-place “Best Dish” awards in the Long Island School Nutrition Challenge.
Now, her reputation and resume have earned her a spot on an episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” which filmed in June and will air at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
With White House chef Sam Kass as one of the judges, four school chefs went head to head in the competition designed to showcase healthy school lunches. In the show, the “lunch ladies” are each given the same surprise ingredients, hidden in a basket until the second the competition begins, and are timed while they create their dishes.
After each round, the chefs are judged and one is “chopped.” The winner gets $10,000.
Leggio, 51, of Islip, said when the chefs opened their baskets in the first round, they were looking at two cans of tuna, spinach, pickles and wonton wrappers.
“When I first opened my basket, I completely went blank,” she said, before using the thought of serving her students as motivation. “Then I said, ‘Get your act together, there are too many kids waiting for you.’”
Leggio said the show producers really do keep the ingredients a mystery. She knows because she tried to peek, and there were thick napkins covering the food inside the baskets.
Leggio said the experience was great and that she received many compliments from the judges -- who included restaurateur Marc Murphy and fine dining chef Amanda Freitag -- and show host Ted Allen.
Leggio said she was proud to help promote healthy school lunches because she believes that any school cafeteria can serve good food regardless of the ingredients it's working with.
“Stop reheating and start cooking,” Leggio said to the camera when Food Network filmed her introduction at school.
Adeline Rodriguez, who has worked with Leggio for 12 years, said she’s sure Leggio did well on the show.
“She’s always creating new things,” she said. “When she cooks, she just goes for it. She doesn’t go by recipes.”
The students are also rallying behind their lunch lady. As students filed into the cafeteria Tuesday morning, they stopped to say “congratulations” and “good luck.”
“I think she’ll do great,” said Matt Levine, 16, of Islip. “She just makes good food and there’s always something different.”
Leggio said she just hopes she makes the students proud and that the episode makes an impact.
“The most important thing is that we are being recognized for what we serve these kids,” she said. “Food is changing and in a better way.”