White House Dinner: A Tasty Treat at The Peasant & The Pear

White House Dinner

White House Dinner

The White House came to Danville Monday night, September 21, 2009. In fact, a lot from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue showed up at 267 Hartz Avenue.

“The Peasant and the Pear” restaurant owner and Executive Chef Rodney Worth and political analyst, Mark Curtis, hosted a “White House Dinner.” It was a salute to presidential food and history!

Throughout American history, Inaugural dinners have celebrated a new president. Each tenant of the oval office has chosen a menu that reflects a theme that is to be symbolic of his term in the White House. President Obama’s inaugural theme, “A New Birth of Freedom,” was borrowed from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. The dessert served at Obama’s Inauguration was also borrowed from Lincoln’s Inaugural – Huckleberry-Blackberry Cobbler.

This party was about food and quirky fun! I was greeted by a faux Monica Lewinski, who showed me to the champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Marilyn Monroe softly belted out, These Boots are Made for Walking, while Jackie Kennedy showed me to my table. It was decorated with a clear glass jar full of Jelly Bellies-a nice homage to Ronald Reagan’s favorite snack.

Rodney, in his warm, jovial manner, welcomed us all to his White House Dinner and introduced each dish. Mark Curtis, a news correspondent who now has his own news, public relations,
and political analysis agency, and who has dined at the White House three times, kept us in stitches with amusing historical anecdotes. For example, Andrew Jackson wanted to invite well-wishers into the lobby of the White House and have cheese waiting for them. He had a 1400-pound wheel of cheese brought in. The White House smelled horrible and draperies
and rugs had to be cleaned to get rid of the stench.

There was the time when Boris Yeltsin didn’t care so much for the dinner served by President Clinton’s chef (either that or Vodka just sped up his metabolism). Yeltsin was found at 2:30
a.m., drunk, and hailing a cab-and, oh and the best part-in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue. He told the Secret Service that he was craving a pizza.

The first course of the divine meal was a rich, creamy, flavorful potato-leek soup that was out of this world. If I hadn’t been expected to behave so properly, I might have licked the
bowl clean—that’s how good it was. We learned that this was George Bush’s favorite soup and the one he served at his Inauguration. The second course was a frisee salad with Granny Smith apples and brie that was inspired by John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and his wife were lovers of French food and culture and employed a French chef to prepare that cuisine very often.

We had a choice for the main course: California sea bass with saffron risotto and fennel salad, which had been served at one of Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural dinners, or Arkansas chicken
with garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, served by Bill Clinton. Both were heavenly.

During dessert we learned that some prominent local politicians were dining with us. Mayor Newell Arnerich, of Danville called this night “a delightful evening; the perfect way to digest politics is with great food.” Mayor Abram Wilson, of San Ramon, urged anyone “who has a love of great food and a love of great conversation to absolutely attend this wonderful event.” There was talk about repeating this in January.

The evening ended with a book signing by Mark Curtis. His Age of Obama: A Reporter’s Journey with Clinton, McCain, and Obama in the Making of the President 2008 is brilliant. His insights reflect a profound understanding of American politics and the way it is shaped by the residents of “Main Street, U.S.A.” The book reads like a fascinating road trip. His style is reminiscent of Studs Terkel. This is a must read. For more information, visit www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

White House Dinner

White House Dinner

White House Dinner guests, from left to right: San Ramon Councilman Dave Hudson; San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson; “Age of Obama” author Mark Curtis; Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich, and his wife Janis Arnerich.

The Bay Area Crisis Nursery

crisis_nursery1For Parents Who Care But Temporarily Can’t Cope

What if it were possible to stop the clock, allowing time and resources to combine in such a way to prevent a case of child abuse? This possibility is a reality, thanks to The Bay Area Crisis Nursery. We stop the clock by allowing children to have a safe haven to stay while their parents or guardians receive the resources they need before a child abuse incident occurs due to a stressful situation.

Founded in 1981 by Sister Ann Weltz, the Nursery is a 24-hour a day, 365 day a year service provider that has welcomed over 20,000 admissions since opening its doors. The purpose of the Bay Area Crisis Nursery (BACN) is to prevent abuse and neglect of children by providing support to families who are in stress or crisis.

Our primary service is providing a warm, loving, homelike environment for children birth through eleven years of age by offering short term residential care. This service is free, confidential and voluntary. Our other service is a Respite Care Program. The Respite Care Program is designed to be an ongoing support to families after the immediate crisis. It consists of planned pre-arranged two to four day stays. This service plays an important role in improving family coping patterns and reducing the risks of child abuse.

What makes the Bay Area Crisis Nursery unique is that it is the only crisis nursery in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and is exclusively funded by private donations without any government assistance. Our services are provided at no charge to the clients.

Among the many diverse socio-economic families that seek support from BACN, one commonality is the overwhelming desire to find relief from extraordinary and immediate stress. Some are homeless; some have substance abuse problems or are fleeing domestic violence. Some have a history of mental illness; others have a medical emergency.

“Despite a poor economy and the overall reduction in charitable giving, we have managed to meet the needs of our families. We appreciate the ongoing support from the community, and feel we are making a significant difference in the lives of the children we care for,” says Sr. Ann Weltz, Executive Director.

The most significant fundraiser for BACN is the Annual Fall Gala. Attending this event is a great way to get to know and support the Nursery’s work. The theme for this year’s gala is “Wind Beneath Their Wings” and it will be held Saturday, November 14th at The Diablo Country Club. Please join us in supporting this wonderful non-profit charity that helps prevent
child abuse.

For tickets please contact The Bay Area Crisis Nursery at 925-685-6633.
NANCY LUCAS

Children's Choice

Children's Choice

Children's Choice

A Wholesome, Healthy, Local Success Story

As a 1990 graduate of John Baldwin Elementary School in Danville, and one of five kids, Justin Gagnon clearly remembers the allure of “hot” lunch. Brown-bagging it was healthier for the family budget, but every now and then, Justin’s mom needed a break. Designed to mimic the growing popularity of fast food fare, pizza, hamburgers and frozen burritos ruled the menu back then.

Today, many critics of school lunch would argue that not much has changed. True, the National School Lunch Program has updated their guidelines to ensure that the pizza, hamburgers and burritos which are served are healthier; yet open up any newspaper and you’ll find another “bad news” school lunch story. It seems that from the op-ed pages of the New York Times to local mommy blogs, parents and industry professionals are calling (even screaming) for better lunches for our kids.

These voices of dissent are not lost on Justin, who in addition to being a health-conscious dad, is also the CEO and Co-Owner of Children’s Choice, California’s fastest-growing, family-owned sustainable school lunch company (recently ranked 1027 in Inc. 5000‘s third annual ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies). Featuring scratch cooking using family recipes, local and organic fruits, vegetables, tortillas and breads, hormone and antibiotic-free beef, poultry, and dairy, Children’s Choice is proving to be an innovative solution to “old school” school lunches. And before you can say “tag-you’re it,” Justin and his team can round up a multi-purpose room full of parents and kids more than eager to tell you why. But that would be getting ahead of the story…

LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD
Long before Children’s Choice began cooking up healthier, greener and kid-approved lunches for 122 schools throughout California (the company has kitchens in Danville, San Jose and Huntington Beach), the extended Gagnon family moved to town. Originally from Massachusetts, the Gagnon’s moved to Alamo in the mid 1960’s. Larry Gagnon, Justin’s Dad, fondly remembers growing up next door to his grandparents. “I’d jump the fence into their yard on my way home from school. My Nana would always have something for me. She was an amazing cook, an immigrant from Italy, and I remember being one of the few kids who had bragging rights to a true Sicilian veal cutlet sandwich in high school.” A 1969 graduate of San Ramon Valley High, Larry remembers what a really good lunch meant to him. “It just made my whole day better!”

Fast-forward a few years, with Larry at the stove in the kitchen of his father’s restaurant, Paul’s, in Martinez. In the 1970’s, Larry opened Gagnon’s Catering, which began as a weekend hobby in a small garage converted for cooking. Over the course of the next few years, Larry would marry his sweetheart, Mary Cummings, start a family and grow the business, eventually moving to their current location in the heart of Danville. The Gagnon clan grew to five kids (Justin is second behind his sister, Robbie, who also works in the family business) and would eventually adopt a small lunch program called Children’s Choice.

As Larry tells it, those days hummed with activities—a business owner and father of five, Larry happily and tirelessly went from catering a wedding, to a son’s baseball game, to a daughter’s dance recital, to donating hours (and pots and pots of homemade spaghetti) to various school and church fundraisers. It’s clear that he never wanted to miss out on a single moment of his full family life and his voice still vibrates with energy and passion.

RE-IMAGINING SCHOOL LUNCH
For many years, Children’s Choice was content to exist as a simple school lunch company, an adjunct to the growing catering business, which served just a handful of schools more out of a service to the community than as any kind of profitable venture. In 2003 Larry called his son, Justin, to tell him that he’d buy him and his two best friends, Ryan Mariotti and Keith Cosbey, all three IT consultants, airplane tickets if they would come to California and build a program website for Children’s Choice. Orders were increasing, and it seemed that it might be a good idea to bring Children’s Choice into the technology age. All three are Notre Dame graduates, successful technical professionals, and knew that it would take more than a weekend to build a website. But Justin had a hunch that adding technology alone wasn’t enough to maximize the potential of Children’s Choice.

A little marketplace research and several soul-searching conversations later, and the three agreed to make the leap into school food service. They had begun to tire of the corporate merry-go-round and the original concept of a company devoted solely to school lunch, taking advantage of technical advancements and highlighting quality local ingredients and more nutritional fare for kids, offered something truly meaningful.

Motivated by the vision of building a company with a greater purpose than themselves, they decided to leave behind the security of corporate America for the wild frontier of entrepreneurialism. (It helped that Larry and Mary Gagnon had agreed that all three could reside, rent-free, at the Gagnon’s home, fondly referred to as the “Compound.”) Justin, Ryan and Keith, former Notre Dame Glee Club members and now full-time entrepreneurs, steeped themselves in full start-up mode. Building Children’s Choice 1.0 demanded weeks of 20-hour days which started over a grill in the hot kitchen. The afternoons would find Keith pitching schools on their unique lunch program, Justin analyzing nutritional data, and Ryan, after endless hours of web design and site coding, inevitably slumped over a keyboard, dozing in front of a computer screen.

The sleep-deprived blur of this start-up period would not only prove fruitful for a reinvigorated family business, but the new Children’s Choice would lay the groundwork for a much needed innovation in school lunch.

THE LUNCH “LADIES”
Lovingly dubbed the “Lunch Ladies” by their fellow Notre Dame alums, Justin, Ryan and Keith passionately believe in the link between building healthy eating habits and offering plenty of choice. Today, Children’s Choice’s story and mission has grown from serving dozens of bag lunches to providing a fully-integrated, premium, sustainable school lunch program to almost 100 schools in the greater Bay Area.

Featuring all-natural, locally sourced and organic ingredients in all their meals at both private and public schools, Children’s Choice allows parents to preorder their children’s entrées online, using a highly customized, proprietary website with unparalleled ordering flexibility. With nutritional information, allergen statements, entrée descriptions and pictures online, parents and kids are provided with all of the information they need to make responsible choices.

Pre-ordering gives Children’s Choice the opportunity to offer 16 different entrées each day from an ever-expanding kidapproved menu, while reducing waste through their innovations
in compostable packaging. With so many choices, the company’s philosophy reminds parents to involve kids when ordering online, and once kids are at school, they are thrilled to be able to ‘shop’ and choose their own healthy snack and fresh fruits, veggies and drinks from a vast selection.

THE GREENING OF SCHOOL LUNCH
For less than the cost of a venti latte, Children’s Choice melds high-quality, local ingredients into their expansive suite of kidfriendly, homemade entrées, including hand-rolled sushi; family recipe, reduced-fat pasta sauces; lean, home-style turkey pot roast; pesto lasagna made with fresh pasta; BBQ and chicken Caesar salads with organic romaine lettuce; hand-rolled, antibiotic-free chicken enchiladas; and turkey pesto sandwiches on fresh, Semifreddi’s ciabatta.

Children’s Choice also partners with Earthbound Organics, Annie’s Naturals, local, family farmers and a growing list of other like-minded, sustainable businesses. As a Certified Green Business and recent winner of the 2009 Sustainability Champion Award from Sustainable Contra Costa, Children’s Choice is leading the industry with green innovations such as the development of the first-ever compostable hot meal tray and compostable clear bags for their fresh cut fruits and vegetables. “Being a green business and growing a successful company are not inherently opposing forces; we’re interested in rewriting the textbook when it comes to school food service. Sustainable alternatives are sometimes more expensive, but as a dad, an uncle, a business owner and a concerned citizen, I believe the choices we are making will benefit our children both now and in the future,” Justin notes.

Apparently it’s paying off. Over the past school year and with the company’s expansion into Southern California, the company has grown 70% and shows no signs of slowing.

GINNY HAIR