NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The smells coming from celebrity chef Bal Arneson’s stainless-steel pans were unfamiliar to most of the students in the New Brunswick Middle School cafeteria. Their scrunched noses and wide eyes made that clear.
Two girls helped Arneson, the star of Cooking Channel’s “Spice Goddess” and author of several cookbooks, sizzle red onions, garlic and ginger in hot oil, before dumping tomato paste, turmeric and other spices into the mixture. They were whipping up an order of Arneson’s no-butter chicken, a dish inspired by the cuisine of her native India, in front of 450 curious youngsters.
“This is the best day ever,” one boy shouted, grabbing his buddy’s shoulder.
They better get used to it. Arneson visited the school yesterday, Dec. 14, on behalf of Chartwells, the city school district’s food-service contractor. She took the show to the high school the prior day. After winter break, Chartwells plans to introduce Arneson’s Indian dishes, like no-butter chicken and a spicy, gourmet mac-’n’-cheese meal, to New Brunswick’s regular lunch menu.
That menu is quite a leap from the school lunches available during her visit: meatball subs, cold-cut sandwiches and the like—all served, of course, with small samples of Arneson’s creations.
Chartwells’ turn toward Arneson’s culinary style is rooted in wellness and culture, she said. She often uses no cream or butter and very little salt, allowing the healthier but pungent spices to bring the flavor, she said.
“It’s a message to kids: You don’t have to eat deep-fried food, and you can still have amazing flavors,” Arneson told TAPinto New Brunswick. “You’ve got to feed your brain, but you’ve got to feed your soul.”
Arneson has appeared as a judge on both “Iron Chef America” and “Bobby Flay’s Dinner Battle.” She has also written popular cookbooks like “Everyday Indian” and “Bal’s Quick and Healthy Indian.” In the ever-growing world of the culinary glitterati, she has become someone whose name matters.
And her celebrity status meant something to New Brunswick children. During a question-and-answer session, as many of the students’ inquiries focused on how famous she is, or her TV shows, as they did cooking.
“The kids really make the connections with the people, rather than with the food,” New Brunswick Middle School Principal Jeremiah Clifford said. “Her being a teacher, she knows how kids act, so that was helpful.”
Yes, before gaining fame, Arneson spent a decade teaching schoolchildren of all ages. She only began building a career in the kitchen while earning her master’s degree in education, which required her to cater friends’ parties—and eventually write a cookbook—to pay the bills, she said.
But her humble beginnings are what most connect her with local kids. Arneson was born in Punjab, India, and grew up in a poor village. For the first 13 years of her life, she said, she typically went to bed hungry. Sometimes she stole fatty snacks like butter to get by.
New Brunswick consistently ranks among the poorest cities in the Garden State. The most recent U.S. Census statistics, for instance, show that nearly 35 percent of city residents live below the poverty line.
So, for Arneson, teaching children like those who attend New Brunswick Middle School to cook and eat with their bodies in mind has become something of a mission. Throw in a dash of culture that is new to most students, and she’s cooking two birds in one oven.
“Sometimes, for these kids, school lunch is the only food they have,” she said. “If you can’t go to the restaurant, I’m going to bring the restaurant to you.”
While Arneson stood before the middle-school students, she asked her two volunteers what they like to eat. Grilled cheese? Yes. Spaghetti? Yes. Tacos? Yes.
Then why not Indian food, too?