By Pamela Dozois

Contributing Writer

Bethany Markee, director of child nutrition for the Orcutt Union School District, is a powerhouse of energy, drive, enthusiasm, and passion for good food, belying her diminutive stature.

She oversees the nutrition program for 10 public schools throughout the district – no small feat. Her goal is to teach her students how to prepare food and make healthy choices as well.

Markee started full-time in the restaurant industry when she was 14 as a line cook in Skowhegan, Maine.

Chef Bethany Markee, director of child nutrition for the Orcutt Union School District, is prepares vegetables.

“I have always been very independent, wanting to earn my own money,” she said. “At 14 I wanted to work in a restaurant, so I asked for a job at a local establishment. The owner hired me as a dishwasher, but I was so little I couldn’t reach the sink to wash the big pots, so I had to stand in one sink to wash the pots in the other. The owner saw me and picked me up out of the sink and put me in the prep area, saying, ‘I hope you can cook’, and walked away. I just figured it out and became one of his best line cooks. I worked there for almost four years.”

Markee attended Skowhegan High School, a technical school, which offered a two-year culinary arts program. After graduating she attended a two-year culinary college, graduated and immediately headed to California.

“In high school I was a long-distance, cross country runner and I qualified to compete in an event in California. As soon as I saw California, I said to myself, ‘I’d love to live here’. So when I finished culinary school I just packed up my belongings, put my clothes in a garbage bag and headed for California with a friend. I’ve worked at California Pizza Kitchen, Sodexho, and at the Marriott. I moved to Boston for a bit, then to New York, but returned to the Santa Barbara area,” said Markee.

“I have always been very driven. I was fortunate to funnel my energy in the right direction. Thank goodness, it could have gone sideways. I grew up in the restaurant business. In the restaurant business, you either survive or you don’t,” she said.

Markee has two children, a girl almost 16 and a boy 11.

“Having kids, I started paying more attention to what we are feeding our children. I began to educate myself on child nutrition, and I was not happy at what I found, so I decided to make some very conscious changes,” said Markee. “I found my way into child nutrition through the Orfalea Foundation. Paul Orfalea (founder of Kinko’s) donated a tremendous amount of money to schools to educate food service workers how to cook from scratch.”

Markee was then hired as the Food Service Director at Solvang School, where she worked for five years.

“While working full time at Solvang School during the day I also worked full time evenings, sometimes working 90 to 100 hours a week,” she said. “I worked at Root 246, Succulent Café, and for the Dargan’s Corp. in Santa Barbara, at Pizza Mizza, and the Padero Beach Grill in Carpinteria.”

While teaching cooking classes at Solvang School, focusing on healthy food and nutrition, and making everything from scratch, Markee said she saw a huge shift in food consciousness.

“I talked to the students about the changes we were making and the kids got on board,” said Markee. “We partnered with Veggie Rescue, taking in approximately 9,000 pounds of free, organic, fruits and vegetables each year. It was like Christmas every day. We quadrupled the number of students who ate breakfast and lunch at Solvang School. All of the 10 schools that I oversee now receive organic produce from Veggie Rescue. It’s fantastic!”

Markee is in her eighth year of teaching child nutrition and her third year at Orcutt Union School District.

“Bethany is the first director of children’s nutrition who gets up close and personal with the kids, who teaches them healthy eating, cooking and nutrition. The cooking class she’s started has been magical for the kids who are participating. They love going to class and are excited about learning how to be junior chefs,” said Joe Dana, principal of Olga Reed School in Los Alamos and The Orcutt Academy.

A “pizza party” fundraiser was recently held at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos for the Orcutt Union School District Culinary Arts Program, with the help of Clark Staubb, owner of Flatbread. The restaurant, which is usually closed on Wednesday, opened its doors to the families of the children at Olga Reed School and The Orcutt Academy who participated in the cooking class taught by Markee.

The students took a field trip in the early afternoon, visiting Flatbread to learn from Staubb about wood fired pizza, locally sourced food and operating a restaurant. They then busied themselves setting the tables with cutlery and water, preparing for the many guests who were to attend.

The children made the salad and all the pizzas from scratch, and served them to a packed house of hungry people, making sure everyone was well catered to. Colton Stewart, a former culinary student at Solvang School who now works as a junior chef in a local restaurant, was on hand to assist Markee by cooking the pizzas in the oven, a very hot job. Stewart anticipates going to culinary school in the future.

“It was fun making and chopping the pizzas, but I like people and I liked going around and visiting the tables a lot, making sure everyone had everything they needed,” said student Sam Nickell.

“I learned many types of slices for better ways to cut food so if I ever have to cut something, I’ll know how to do it,” said William Woodside.

“I liked greeting all the people at the front desk, being a hostess,” said Sofia Rubalcava.

“Clark Staubb is just amazing and a wonderfully generous person,” said Markee. “I was so impressed with the children at the pizza party at Flatbreads. They did such a great job and it was a magical evening. I hope there are many more to come.”

“This fundraiser gave many of our local families an opportunity to experience a cornerstone of the restaurant scene here in Los Alamos, and the families were so excited to be a part of this event,” said Dana. “One grandmother drove all the way from Los Angeles to experience the evening. All I can say is, I hope we can have more of these evenings.”

“I’m grateful that I have this opportunity of working in the field of child nutrition and I acknowledge this, but I am focused on doing more,” said Markee. “There is so much that needs to be done. I don’t need a lot of sleep, so that’s a good thing. I am fortunate to have a lot of energy and drive because that’s what it takes – this is absolutely 100 percent my passion.”