On the night of Thursday, November 2, one of the sandwich offerings at Forman School's Lion Den Bistro was parsnip puree, sauteed bok choy, roasted mushrooms, Arethusa Blue Cheese with sherry vinegar on sourdough.
To some palates, that's a little more enticing than microwaved ramen or macaroni and cheese.
The Lion's Den Bistro is one of the many new additions to Forman's campus in the fall of 2017. And the man responsible for that sandwich is Matthew Thomas, a New Orleans-born chef who has worked everywhere from mass market chains to restaurants boasting Michelin stars.
In the summer of 2017, Chef Thomas and his wife Rachel moved to Litchfield because Rachel was starting a new job at Forman. Thomas planned to find restaurant work in Litchfield or Bantam. But Rachel's mom, Forman's Director of Studies Jamie Dwan, mentioned to headmaster Adam Man that a talented chef was coming to town and Mr. Man saw a chance to try out an idea he'd had for a while.
"Mr. Man asked me if I wanted to oversee a bistro that would serve locally-sourced meat and produce," says Thomas. "He said that he also wanted to start a Culinary Educational Program at Forman. He made it clear that we would start modestly but that growth and expansion would be possible. I took the job."
Chef Thomas' family has long been in the restaurant and hospitality industry in New Orleans.
"As a kid, I was around the business but I was never drawn to it," says Thomas. "I wasn't a fancy eater. Like most Americans, I put ketchup on everything," he said. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Wanting to help his uncle rebuild his restaurant after the storm, Thomas worked tirelessly and saw how to build a restaurant from the ground up. He took note of all they needed to do to get back in business and he was hooked.
"My uncle's chef, Christian Rossit, was from Italy and I was his apprentice," says Thomas. "I learned how to be a cook. He and the general manager of the restaurant encouraged me to leave New Orleans and go to Italy and New York to advance my studies and gain more experience."
The plan with the Bistro is to offer students healthier food options provided by local farms and to develop a relationship with the nearby farming community. And the culinary program is an opportunity for students to learn about food preparation and cooking. Five students are working six or seven days a week in the Culinary Program this fall in lieu of playing a sport.
"Each week, I see what is available and order what looks good," says Thomas. "Then, during the week, the students will be working alongside me and learning how to execute a menu based on what I ordered. The following week, we start all over with new, fresh ingredients. They are learning everything from knife skills to portion control."
As for his ever-changing menus, Chef Thomas knows that pureed parsnips aren't for everyone.
"Using fresh, local ingredients," he says with a smile. "You can make refined chicken wings that taste great."