Chef Merizalde

Students provided opportunity to interface with newly hired chef
Posted on 09/19/2023
Kevin Merizalde

A chef who apprenticed at a world-renowned restaurant has begun leading classroom activities, in addition to training kitchen workers and catering events for the Poplar Bluff School District.

Having joined the Chartwells team last month, Kevin Merizalde previously served for five years as executive chef and kitchen manager at Castello’s Restaurant, and was doubling in the cafeteria at Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center for several months prior. He got his start in the food service industry in New York City, most notably at the famous Tavern on the Green.

“When we promote Discovery Kitchen and the kids wear paper chef hats, they will actually be mingling with a real chef now,” stated Dixie Harden, Chartwells senior director of dining services. “We are fortunate to have Kevin. More than just his background, he has the kind of communication skills and air about him that makes him very personable, and easy to talk to.”

Born in Ecuador, Merizalde attended secondary school in Queens a year behind grade level, due to his language barrier at the time, yet ended up graduating from the Academy of Medical Technology as valedictorian of the Class of 2013. He withdrew from a private college on a scholarship when he was given a chance to work directly under Executive Chef John P. Stevenson at the Central Park location.

“You can go to culinary school and just learn, or you have that step-by-step, hands on education in the kitchen with someone behind you teaching when it’s busy during a rush,” Merizalde said. “It’s a different experience.”

In addition to the iconic Tavern in Manhattan, Merizalde apprenticed under Stevenson at Charlies Bar & Kitchen and assisted with developing recipes as the hospitality adviser did consultant work that included helping to design a menu for a kosher restaurant in London. In between jobs, Merizalde was also employed at and later managed Mighty Bowl 2, an Asian fusion restaurant.

It was at All Nations Baptist Church where Merizalde would meet his future wife Summer, who was there participating in a mission through Westwood Baptist Church of Poplar Bluff, he explained. Summer’s stepfather happened to work for the distributor Sysco, and originally assisted in getting Merizalde an interview in Missouri, when the couple decided to relocate. PBRMC also contracts food services with Compass Group, the parent company over Chartwells.

Adding a chef was part of the food service bid renewal approved during the May Board of Education meeting. Merizalde recalled how he was not seeking a new job at the time, he was recruited via the career search website, Indeed. A school system the size of Poplar Bluff, among the largest in the state for Chartwells, typically staffs such a position, according to Harden.

“He can teach and train my team to use spices for different things, and help enhance the flavor of food without going past our [nutritional] guidelines in place,” Harden said. “He also has the vision, beyond just making dishes taste well, that will allow us to bring our program to the next level.”

Merizalde visited his first classroom on Thursday, Sept. 14, helping to prepare lettuce that the Middle School has been growing since the start of the year in tower gardens funded by Downtown Poplar Bluff Inc., with a grant secured through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As one of her first orders of business as assistant principal, Karmen Carson consulted with former instructor Shellie Yarbro, who now works for Juice Plus+, to service the vertical, aeroponic gardens, which are several years old.

Studying structures and functions of a plant in Dana Redwine’s fourth grade science class, first-time lettuce eater Adeline Tomblin said she had been watching the plants “grow bigger every single day.” A self-proclaimed expert, having made garden soup as a child playing in the yard, Adeline said: “It’s really good. It kind of tastes like regular leaves.” Another first-timer, Noah Cornell, commented about the fresh salad: “It’s not bad, but it’s not my go-to snack.”

Of his new clientele, Merizalde pointed out: “I love working with kids. They can give you the best feedback you can hear—blunt. ‘Yuck’ or ‘yummy,’ means you’re either doing something right, or you have to make it better.”


Cutline: Chef Kevin Merizalde of Chartwells Poplar Bluff helps prepare school-grown lettuce for Middle School students studying the structure and functions of plants on Thursday, Sept. 14.

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