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Kenmare school cooks 'feeding the masses'

Sharon Wink and Michelle Johansen enjoy their jobs. They enjoy working together, they make a good team and they are doing something on a daily basis that most people wouldn’t even attempt to do.

2/16/16 (Tue)

Cooks in the kitchen . . . Sharon Wink, left and Michelle Johansen prepare a meal of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on Ash Wednesday. The two women have been working together the past three years, feeding as many as 300 students and staff daily at Kenmare High School.

By Marvin Baker

Sharon Wink and Michelle Johansen enjoy their jobs. They enjoy working together, they make a good team and they are doing something on a daily basis that most people wouldn’t even attempt to do.

Wink and Johansen are the cooks at Kenmare High School, just the two of them, feeding as many as 300 students and staff on any given day.

“If I’m busy, she takes over,” Johansen said of Wink. If she’s busy, I take over. Sometimes I think we share the same brain cells.”

Wink calls it a “fun and happy” work environment and when you mention industrial food service, she doesn’t see it like that at all.

With a radio tuned into 97 Kicks FM and the smell of fresh bread, Wink looks at her job as more of a privilege to be there, rather than having to cook for people.

“We work well together and that helps (the work environment),” Wink said. “We work hard, we get it done, then we play.”

Once upon a time, there may have been four or five people working in the Kenmare High School kitchen, but that was whittled down to Wink and Johansen.

“We’re never overwhelmed,” Wink said. “We know what we’re going to do and we’re going to get it done. We’ll take a break here or there, but we get things done.”

She said time management is the key to taking care of as many people as they do.

And if you could describe this dynamic duo in one word, it would be “efficient.”

As much as they can, they prepare things in advance so they don’t show up for work and realize they have a mountain to climb.

As an example, Wink talked about pulled pork. She said the pork is prepared the day before the meal, then the day of the meal, Wink and Johansen pull it all apart getting it ready for sandwiches.

In an industrial setting, such as military dining facilities, six cooks will feed a company of troops, which is 160 people.

In Kenmare, these two cooks are feeding at least 180 and often more than that because partial meals are prepared for elementary students, served by a separate staff, as well as breakfast.

“There’s a lot of hot food we make here for the elementary school,” Wink said. “Again, we make items ahead.”

They sometimes talk about what would happen if one of them is ill and can’t get to work. There’s no such thing for these two ladies as not feeling like going to work.

“We have talked about it but nothing has happened in three years,” Wink said. “There are no subs, so we have to be here. We take our vacations during the summer.”

But, Johansen was scheduled to assist the junior class in making cookies and supervising during the District 16 girls basketball touranment held Thursday through Saturday.

That meant going to work on Friday morning without a lot of sleep.

“No, I won’t have a lot of energy,” Johansen said. “I’ll be drinking a lot of coffee.”

According to Wink, they try to prepare meals that most kids will enjoy. They can’t please everybody, but they try.

Wink said federal guidelines have kind of thrown a monkey wrench into the situation.

As an example, all bread and pizza crust has to be from whole grain flour.

Wink said a lot of the students say they can taste the difference and many of them don’t like it.

“We used to get a lot of kids in for pizza, but a lot don’t come anymore,” Wink said. “I think it’s because of the crust.”

Wink said taco in a bag is another meal in which numerous students are finicky.

She said they like the Dorito’s corn chips, which are processed food, but not the whole grain tortilla.

Whole grain is required and a fruit or vegetable is required. Students can have three different food components on their plate, but a fruit or a vegetable is a must, according to Wink.

“We serve a healthy meal, but some of the kids don’t like it,” she said. “It’s a shame to see so much food going to waste. It just makes me sick to see food go to waste.”

 If a student doesn’t like a food item, they have three options. They can take another component from the menu, they can bring a sack lunch or many of them can go off campus and purchase a meal.

Wink is at work at 5:30 every morning and Johansen sleeps in, arriving at work at 6:30. As soon as Wink leaves work, she’s on her way to her other job of taking care of a flock of sheep that are lambing right now.

But again, that efficiency quotient comes into play. Wink prepares a dining schedule a month out so she can be mulling things around in her head long before the meal actually has to be prepared.

They both admit that they sometimes have to work harder than they would like, but they are both dedicated to what they do.

Just before Christmas, they prepared what can only be described as a feast. A Christmas holiday meal with all the trimmings and pie for dessert. That was a lot of work for both of them and they called in additional staff to assist in serving that meal.

On the other side of that coin, they both like to prepare pizza and although neither of them said it, they implied they would serve pizza every day if they could.

“Pizza is easy and most kids like it,” Wink said. “Today, it’s tomato soup so there are a lot more dishes to clean.”

Johansen agreed, but is up to just about any challenge.

“Pizza is an easy day for us,” she said. “But most of them are.”

Johansen recalled in her first year of working, kids would pick up their meal, inhale it on the way out and get back in line for a second meal. They can’t do that anymore. No seconds, no extra cookies. Remember, it’s a shift toward healthier meals.

The food comes from a variety of sources. The bread is purchased from Gartner’s Jack & Jill one month, Kenmare Super Valu the next and then repeats.

Dean’s Foods supplies the milk and nearly all of the bulk items come from Food Services of America in Minot. Booth Delivery brings commodity items like cheese.

“I can’t complain about FSA,” Wink said. “They’ve been good lately, but there used to be a lot of mispicks.”

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