- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

ALLEN, Texas (AP) - Navy veteran John Lara has whipped up meals for high-ranking military officials, members of George W. Bush’s Cabinet and the former president himself.

Now he develops recipes and trains cooks to win over another crowd: the students at Allen Independent School District.

Though Lara no longer prepares gourmet menus at the White House, feeding a 20,000-student district is no small potatoes.

“What’s more rewarding than here?” Lara told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/1clxKMc) as he peeled a cantaloupe on a steel counter in the Allen High School cafeteria kitchen. “It brings me back to my element, feeding the sailors.”

Lara, 47, has served as Allen ISD’s culinary specialist since 2010, when the position first opened. He retired from the Navy in 2009 and worked as Bush’s personal chef for a year. He said he took the Allen job to spend more time with his wife and three sons, ages 9 through 15.

Dorothy Thompson, director of student nutrition, said Lara was brought on board to train staff to cook more meals from scratch. In recent years, the federal government has put in guidelines to make school lunches healthier.

“I interviewed a lot of different chefs, and John was the person who was the most down-to-earth,” Thompson said.

Lara spends most of his time in the kitchen, training groups of campus staff or working with cooks one-on-one. On busy days he’ll help chop fruits and vegetables at the high school.

Training sessions with Lara range from how to make faux mashed potatoes with cauliflower to how to mop the kitchen floor properly.

His career began with the dirty work. Lara said he was 15 when he took a summer job as a dish washer at La Fuente’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin. By his senior year, he was fixing the enchilada sauce.

The youngest of eight siblings and the first to graduate from high school, Lara chose to continue his education through the Navy. He started as a seaman cleaning the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.

It wasn’t his cup of tea. He said he talked about working in the kitchens to another crew member, who told Lara to go “mess cranking.”

“I said, ‘Cranking?’” Lara said. “He goes, ‘Yeah, you got to go mess cooking, meaning you got to wash dishes, pick up trash.’”

Lara ended up toiling in the wardroom, the place in the ship where commissioned officers eat. He tasted an opportunity when he spotted avocados in the kitchen and offered to help the cooks make guacamole. Promotions followed.

“Cooking became a big part of what I did in the Navy and something that I mastered,” said Lara, who served for 24 years. “Not just cooking, but managing in the food service side and budgeting, human resources.”

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