Gwen Taylor

Gwen Taylor
Food Service Manager, Oakland Technical High School, Oakland, CA

Origin: Oakland, California

When Gwen calls out an order, you don’t have to wonder if in a former life she might have been an army drill sergeant. “But first I was a cook. That’s how I got started in the army, as a cook. I took the tests and they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to cook.  They didn’t like that.  They said my scores were off the charts and I could go to any school I wanted for training, but I wanted to cook.” She’d already graduated from Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California and from St. Mary’s College located just over the hill in Moraga and was working as a temp when a fellow worker joined the army. “It got me to thinking, so I went down to the recruiter. Finally, after a while, they agreed to let me go to cooking school. They sent me to the Culinary Arts School at Fort Ord. I was in the army, active and reserve duty, for 18 years.”

We asked her why she was so sure she wanted to cook. “Cooking for me was always a way to soothe the soul.” She regaled us with tales of growing up, with family all around the kitchen, kids under the kitchen table, everyone together, kids being given bowls to lick, and bites of everything that was being cooked, and an uncle who said, “Cook me some eggs,” then taught her how to make them just right. “There was just so much love in that kitchen.”

“The most important thing to me in my food, is presentation,” she says. “I don’t want any soft, soggy buns, or overcooked cauliflower. I want to move away from frozen and cook fresh. And I let my staff know that. ‘If somebody gave that to you, would you eat it? I ask them.’”

In the army Gwen says, “We cooked everything from scratch. That was the fun, to see it go from one thing to another, bags of raw potatoes to hot mashed potatoes. We never saw anything frozen and never saw a can. I cooked for 1100 or so every day, all from scratch.”

“Oakland Tech is the first school in Oakland to go back on line for scratch cooking. We’re working on a cheese sauce now, to use with the nachos instead of the cheese in a can. I had a brainstorm in the middle of the night. I’d mix American cheese, milk, and shredded cheese in the top of a double boiler. The kids said, ‘Really good.’ But since they like their food a little spicy, I’m saving the jalapeño juice from the pickled jalapenos and I’m going to try half milk, half jalapeño juice.” No wonder the meal count at lunch has gone up from 50 to more than 200 under Gwen’s management.

In her own life, at home she says, “I’m getting older now, and I’m passing the family traditions on to my children. Like Labor Day. My son does the barbecuing now, my daughter does the potato salad, and I just taught my daughter- in- law how to cut the corn off the cob the way my husband likes it, then cook it with just a little sugar, salt and butter. I supervise.”

Favorite Tool: Her hands

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