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CHCCS Chef Adapts and Thrives

This profile was written in collaboration with UNC student, Eduardo Campuzano.

Not many North Carolina public school districts celebrate sustainable and local ingredients in their menus, but then, not many school districts have the good fortune to provide meals developed by a lead chef like Jordan Keyser. A school-wide “quinoa event,” another dedicated to the versatility of chickpeas, Keyser’s rollouts of new recipes come with a festive and educational component. In his quiet way, he innovates, leads and convinces many students that school lunches need not to revolve around traditional chicken nuggets and pizza.

Jordan and Mike chickpeas at EES

Keyser has served as the Chartwells district chef at CCHCS for over four years. During this time, he has worked to establish farm-to-table practices and elevate the overall quality of school nutrition in his embrace of a progressive-oriented food model.

Originally from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Keyser moved to the Triangle area in 2006. Since then, he has built a resume in the North Carolina culinary field and is now working in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district.

Keyser attended Central Carolina Community College (CCCC), receiving an associates degree in Culinary Arts, with a focus on farm-to-table menus and sustainability. He values the time he spent there, crediting CCCC for having a great program that taught him a great deal. But Keyser’s passion for cooking developed long before his formal training.

Keyser remembers spending his younger years in his grandma’s kitchen. “I grew up in the kitchen. Literally and figuratively. I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother when I was at her house. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14 years old, that’s all I know.” Keyser, now 33, has been working in the food industry insome capacity for nearly 20 years.

Before joining Chartwells, Keyser worked a variety of jobs in the food service industry. He cooked  at the original Pittsboro location of Oakleaf, a high-end farm-to-table restaurant, now relocated to Carrboro. Keyser gives recognition to Chef Brendan Cox at Oakleaf, saying that he learned a lot from him during his time there. 

In addition to improving meals for students, Keyser has also been deeply committed to setting up “mock farmers markets” for students. At these markets, students receive play money with which they can visit the “vendors” and “buy” produce. The mock farmers markets come with a hands-on learning and nutrition education component as well.

Jordan at Estes farmers market Although schools closed in mid-March, due to COVID-19, Keyser has been working hard alongside the CHCCS community with the Food for Students program, providing meals for local students and families most impacted by job loss and food insecurity. Keyser describes the work as difficult but very rewarding. 

Christine Cotton, organizer and consultant with Food for Students, said, “Jordan is amazing. He is so generous with his time and willing to help with anything.”

“The biggest thing is how the community has come together. Without that happening, we wouldn’t have been able to make this happen,” Keyser said. “It has been really inspiring seeing everyone come together and make sure we get these meals out to the people that need it most.”  As of June 2, Food for Students has served well over 275,000 meals in the community.

Liz Cartano, Chartwells Director of Dining, said Keyser’s role and responsibilities have changed substantially since March 13. She said, “He flipped from being a chef, trainer and meal prep to figuring out how to get meals into the community in a format that makes sense. He has focused on local, fresh, healthy and exciting.”

Aside from his passion for the improvement of child nutrition through his work, Keyser also chose to take the position at CHCCS to have more with his family. As a parent of two young children, he said, “The food service industry is a rough industry,” noting the long, late hours that leave little time for families.

He was happy to take the position knowing he’d have more time to focus on what really matters to him: his family, better quality of life and making a real impact on child nutrition and children’s health. Keyser has truly made an impact during his time as district chef and continues to do so in his central role with Food for Students.

Food for Students prep