Parents—next time you can’t figure out what to make for your children’s lunch, think about CA’s Paul Worley.
General Manager of Sodexo, Worley is celebrating his twelfth year at CA. In those 12 years, he has fed lunch to 30 members of the Class of 2018 since they were in first grade. That’s nearly 62,000 lunches. And don’t think that through the years, students haven’t noticed.
“I can’t remember lunch without Paul,” says Mia Brierly. “The food at CA is amazing, especially when I compare it to what kids get at other schools.”
“By the time I was in the sixth grade, I knew he was the leader of the kitchen,” says CA Senior Eric Bear. “Any problems went to him, and any success was because of his organization and leadership. He’s made it a community center.”
Worley didn’t set out to serve the students of CA. The same day he started college (as an English major), he also took a side job working at a restaurant to pay the bills. “I discovered I was good at it,” he says. “It was old-school trial by fire, and you were either onboard or overboard, but I was being tutored by fantastic professionals.”
Gradually, he evolved into a restaurant worker who was going to college on the side, and then into a full-time cook at a legendary restaurant, California Café Los Gatos. After eight years in the kitchen, he decided he wanted a formal culinary education so he headed to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He was “the only California kid in the room,” riding a bicycle to a job waiting tables and learning just enough of the language to serve at a French restaurant. After he graduated, he headed home until California Café transferred him to its Colorado restaurant. From there, he moved to more Denver restaurants with national reputations.
With 17 years of executive chef experience in well-known, highly-regarded white tablecloth restaurants, Worley thought he had it made. “I figured the next chef’s job, I could call my own shots,” he remembers.
“I can’t remember lunch without Paul.” Mia Brierly, CA Class of 2018
Instead, one misstep in a restaurant storage closet resulting in a three-foot fall flat on his back left him in chronic pain with a serious back injury and limited mobility. “Until then, I had been cooking like a madman,” he says. “That put an end to slinging 400 sauté pans a night.”
Worley found himself looking for work, any work. He took a position as a sous-chef with Sodexo, a French food services and facilities management company. Step by step, he worked his way up to different Sodexo positions in schools around Denver. One semester after Colorado Academy opened its new dining hall, he came to CA to run the show.
“I had been an executive chef at elite restaurants,” he says. “Now I was sweeping up after third graders.”
But Worley has turned his talents into an integral part of CA culture. He has auctioned off his skills to benefit CA, bringing in thousands of dollars for his 14-course meals. He started Upper School Service Learning shifts in the kitchen, allowing students to come and work behind the scenes because “some students didn’t realize there was a kitchen behind the grill.” He taught them about ordering food, cooking methods, and food safety. Worley has catered many of CA’s most important events, including the annual Alchemist dinner and the commencement dinner, with 700 people under a tent.
In the dining hall, Worley introduced a variety of creative and healthful offerings for students—quinoa, pho, chicken curry, orange chicken, an expansive salad bar with choices like edamame and hummus, and multiple options for students with dietary restrictions and special needs.
“I’m basically feeding a very large family, including athletes who need to be big and strong,” he says. “When students succeed, I succeed.”
Most important to a student like Mia Brierly is Worley’s attention to healthful choices for students with dietary restrictions. Brierly was diagnosed with celiac disease in eighth grade. Eating food with gluten means she becomes ill, “stomach flu sick,” as she describes it. At CA, she has never had trouble finding gluten-free options that “taste like real food, not like plastic.”
“I feel so lucky to have him here caring about putting gluten-free choices on the menu,” she says. “He puts an extreme amount of care into what he does.”
Both Bear and Brierly point out that many of their friends at other schools leave campus for lunch. “At CA, there is no need to leave campus and spend money on lunch,” Bear says. “The food here is great.”
Ask the students about their favorite foods, and surprisingly, they don’t even mention CA’s delicious pizza. Instead, they talk about Punjabi curry, pork buns, and Thai coconut curry. When students graduate, they write Worley thank-you notes. One note from the Class of ‘17, signed by “Green Bean Girl” says, “I am so appreciative of your hard work. Without you, everyone would be very hungry.”
Another student wrote, “It takes tremendous patience, stamina, dedication, and care to prepare that much food every day for everyone at CA. It’s truly inspiring.”
For Worley, his time at CA has been a win-win. On a school schedule, he has been able to go home at the end of a day, and watch his own children grow up, instead of spending every night in a restaurant kitchen. And during the day, he can take pride in feeding his other (very large) family—some of them since they were in first grade.
“No other chef in town has fed lunch to one group for so long,” he says. “At CA, I do feel like one of the family.”