By Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune reporter

On a recent winter day at a Chicago public high school, “fish tacos” were on the lunch menu.

“Look at this,” one student grumbled, flicking at a stiff flour tortilla on her tray. “They give us this with fish sticks and call it a fish taco. That ain’t lunch.”

Not long after, Holy Trinity High School in Wicker Park was also serving fish. The white fillets came in a crunchy panko-cornmeal crust or baked in olive oil, lemon and herbs, with collard-flecked teriyaki brown rice, olive oil roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli and freshly squeezed lemonade. And the students ate it up.

The meals may sound like they came from two different worlds, but both were served to low-income Chicago high school students as part of the National School Lunch Program.

It’s become accepted wisdom among many school officials that the level of federal reimbursement for meals served through the program — $2.74 per lunch — is too low to cover tasty, nutritious food made from scratch.

But chef Paul Boundas says he serves his scratch-cooked meals to about 4,500 private school students — including about 300 at Holy Trinity — every day for even less than that modest amount.

How does he perform this miracle? That’s what some of the nation’s top food, nutrition and health care thinkers want to know. So Harvard University and the Culinary Institute of America have invited Boundas to share his secrets at the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference this weekend. Attendees will include U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

Harvard’s David Eisenberg came to Chicago this year to learn about Boundas’ program and became intrigued by its potential to improve public health. “We’d like to see if it is reproducible in other inner-city schools for other children,” said Eisenberg, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Eisenberg said he hopes to find a framework to assess the program’s long-term effects “in terms of their physiology, weight, obesity rates, eating habits outside school and education potential over the next several years. … If it impacts obesity, then we have a noble cause to champion.”

While some of Boundas’ techniques could be employed in the Chicago Public Schools, creating food from scratch is difficult in a system with few highly skilled cooks and no working kitchen in about a third of its schools. The district awards a single food service contract for its 600 schools, discouraging the kind of relatively small, nimble operation Boundas runs.

A CPS spokeswoman said she was not familiar enough with Boundas’ program to comment.

Boundas is one of a handful of school lunch innovators nationwide who are emerging from the culinary world — not from a business or nutrition background. Boundas has been in the restaurant business for 15 years (he owns the Country House in Alsip) and is also trained in clinical psychology and the culinary arts. All three have proved essential in winning over his tough customers.

His approach involves easing students gradually into healthier foods, making healthy meals tasty and attractive, hiring a passionate and skilled workforce, adapting his menus to market availability and responding to customer feedback.

“He doesn’t tell us what we have to eat,” said Holy Trinity senior and vegetarian Valerie Balthazar. “He asks us what we like and then he makes it healthier. My favorite dish is the stir-fried vegetables on top of brown rice. It feels like we are eating food from a restaurant.”

When Boundas ushers in healthy menu items, he avoids broadcasting it too loudly. When he switched to whole-grain pasta, for instance, he didn’t put up a sign about it until a month later.

So when a student came through the line and said he didn’t like whole-grain pasta, the cook was able to respond: “You’ve been eating it and liking it for four weeks.”

Boundas entered the school food arena nine years ago when his Country House Kitchen Co. secured the lunch contract for the upscale Morgan Park Academy on the Southwest Side. He continued honing his scratch food model at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights as well as St. Rita and Mount Carmel in Chicago, all of which serve a more economically diverse population.

But nothing prepared him for the challenges of Holy Trinity, a school with 93 percent low-income students and a money-losing food program.

“We had been trying to do (the food) on our own for a few years and we were losing our shirt,” said Holy Trinity President Timothy Bopp. “So when Paul came along, we opened our books to him and wondered if he’d really want to take this on.”

With only 7 percent of the student body paying full price for their meals, working at Holy Trinity locked the chef into his strictest budget yet, one based almost solely on the government reimbursements. But within months of his arrival in August, Boundas had pulled off a minor miracle. The school, which had lost $35,000 to $50,000 a year on its meal program, now enjoys a $28,000 surplus, he reports.

But the real success story is in the dining room. While scores of CPS students recently complained to the Tribune about their “nasty” school food, Holy Trinity students mostly praised their school meals during a recent unchaperoned tour of the lunchroom.

And while CPS’ lunch and breakfast participation rates have dropped since the introduction of healthier menus this year, rates are up at Holy Trinity by 14 percentage points since Boundas arrived.

“When they said we are getting healthy food, I was worried,” said senior Dyllon Young. “But when I tasted it on the first day, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ And it makes you feel much better and more alert after having lunch or breakfast.”

“Last year was terrible,” said senior Cynthia Ojeda, “but this year it is way healthier and we have more of a variety.”

Some students who had transferred recently from public schools said they missed their nachos with melted cheese (which CPS no longer serves) but said they still thought the Holy Trinity food was pretty good.

“I like the sandwiches,” said senior Steven Ruiz, who was eating steamed broccoli and chicken parmesan made with a chicken breast instead of processed chicken. “Last year the meat was like chunks, but this is real chicken parmesan. I also like the pulled pork sandwich here. And the vegetables are really good, not all soggy.”

At Holy Trinity, there are no french fries or bags of chips. Many dishes are made with olive oil from the Boundas family grove in Greece. Breakfast requires cooks to crack scores of fresh eggs each morning. Pancakes, desserts and most breads are made from scratch.

Pastry chef Betsy Robinson bakes for the school and teaches cooking classes to a popular Culinary Club. On a recent chilly afternoon, students in the dining room were enjoying her fragrant apple crisp made from government-issued apples while Robinson mashed overripe federal lunch program bananas for quick breads. Upon arrival last summer, she switched to unbleached flour and got rid of trans fats while gradually working in more whole grains.

“At first we did just a smidgen” of whole-wheat flour, she said, “and now I am doing half and half. It’s easiest with things like oatmeal raisin cookies, apple crisp and now pancakes. But you can’t just switch them to granola overnight. In fact, I called something granola once, and they wouldn’t eat it, so now we say breakfast bar or power bar.”

Whether Boundas’ formula can be reproduced on a larger scale remains to be seen. It would require hiring trained cooks in schools, reviving underused school kitchens and breaking CPS’ moratorium on building new working kitchens.

Moreover, Boundas said, “You need passion. There is no substitute for that.”

School President Bopp said it was the chef’s enthusiasm for the mission that impressed him most.

“We all believe that these kids deserve to have a good, healthy delicious meal,” Bopp said. “At first we were skeptical because you don’t always meet someone who is more interested in making it work than making big profits. But somehow with his magic, Paul has been able to make it all work and the kids love it.”

Secrets to a better, cheaper lunch

Here are Paul Boundas’ money-saving secrets for school food programs, some of which may seem counterintuitive:

•Buying fresh vegetables — for instance, broccoli — instead of frozen.

•Squeezing fresh lemonade and packaging it instead of buying only bottled drinks.

•Skipping canned beans in favor of dried beans that are soaked before cooking.

•Being flexible about purchases depending on market availability.

•Investing in people who can cook real food rather than spending the money on processed foods that will be heated and served by a transient, unskilled workforce with high turnover.