BANGOR, Maine – Early in the morning it’s hard to distinguish the smell of David Dahl’s rolls baking from everything else he is cooking in the kitchen of the Bangor Christian Schools’ building.
A chocolate cake is cooling in a sheet pan. A pot of elbow macaroni is cooling in the sink. An-other pot, which holds a mixture of cheese sauce, margarine and milk, bubbles on the stove.
Walk outside, however, and the yeasty, doughy, warm smell of those freshly baked rolls wafts out of a vent. In a few hours, hungry students in their second week of school will clean out the rolls, fill up on macaroni and cheese, and buy a no-bake cookie or whoopie pie on the side.
School lunch usually gets a bad rap from students, but there’s no mystery meat for this bunch. Dahl’s homemade pasta dishes, pizzas and hamburgers, and sweet treats take out some of the sting of going back to school.
“It’s better than my lunches,” said senior Chelsea Brasslett, who eats school lunch every day and said she would rather buy Dahl’s meals than pack her own.
Dahl does it all — cooking and baking, set up and take down. He has been the school’s resident lunch chef since he left his 20-year job as a baker for Governor’s Restaurant in Old Town about six years ago. Dahl’s brother, John, still bakes for Governor’s, the statewide chain known for its “eat dessert first” slogan.
“It’s the most rewarding job I’ve had cooking,” Dahl said one morning after whipping up some desserts. “I could probably work somewhere else and make a lot of money, but you’d never have the joy of having these kids in here. They’re great kids.”
The Dahl family grew up in the family bakery, owned by father Joe Dahl in Old Town. David Dahl remembers folding pie and cake boxes as a 6-year-old. When he was old enough, he started baking and eventually became known as the Dahl’s Bakery doughnut guy.
After leaving Governor’s, Dahl and his wife, Pam, started Always Creative Catering. Bangor Christian, which is affiliated with Bangor Baptist Church, of which the Dahls are members, ap-proached David Dahl about running the school lunch program.
He arrives at the school at around 6:30 a.m. every day to prepare lunch, which consisted Wednesday of macaroni and cheese, pudding cups, and those homemade rolls that came out of the oven before 9 a.m.
Dahl serves up about 70 prepaid meals per day. Numbers are usually lower than that earlier in the year, but as parents get more rushed and realize they don’t have time to pack a lunch every day, Dahl tends to serve more prepaid meals.
He didn’t serve lunch last week, which was the first back for Bangor Christian students, because the students usually haven’t had a chance to look at the menu yet. Brasslett and some of her friends, who were eating macaroni and cheese Wednesday, said they missed his lunches.
Dahl doesn’t make everything from scratch, but what comes out of a jar, box or can is usually doctored up quite a bit. Most Fridays, for example, Dahl serves pizza. He buys the sauce, then adds spices and some chopped tomatoes. The crust is homemade, however, so Dahl more than makes up for the store-bought sauce.
“You can do that with a lot of things, to spice things up,” he said.
Pizza is one of Dahl’s most popular lunches. Students said they also like the pasta Alfredo, chicken potpies and nachos.
Hamburgers are another favorite. That’s understandable, considering Dahl brings in his own grill that can cook around 60 burgers at a time, and of course, homemade buns.
Dahl also likes to throw in a special treat every now and then. When the weather turns chilly — and when he happens to have some extra pizza dough — he’ll make doughboys for dessert and put out maple syrup and confectioner’s sugar as toppings.
Chicken nuggets are a big seller, too, although they tend to be expensive. Rising prices have been a problem this year as the cost of some staples has almost doubled. The economy and fuel prices are likely to blame, Dahl said.
Dahl felt strongly about not upping the price of the $3.50 lunch, so students may find portions to be a bit smaller this year.
“I cut back on the size, because I figure that’s the only thing I can do,” he said. “We should have gone up [in prices] but we didn’t. I always gave them too much anyway. Four big spoons of pasta, it used to be.”
Not everything Dahl has served has gone over well, he conceded.
“Believe it or not, sloppy Joes don’t sell,” Dahl said. “Maybe they just have a bad reputation, but I can’t sell it. It’s really good, I’m not kidding. It must be because it has a notorious name.”
The students tend to stay away from the vegetable dishes, too. This year Dahl plans to sneak in some vegetables, including a side salad with spaghetti and meat sauce.
“I feel bad because we should give them a healthier diet, but they won’t buy it,” Dahl said. “If their parents can’t get them to eat it, we can’t get them to eat it, you know? And the parents aren’t going to pay for something that kids aren’t going to eat.”
Most of the youngsters would probably eat their veggies, as long as they get their fill of Dahl’s peanut butter no-bake cookies, Congo bars and apple crisp, too.
“Mr. Dahl makes our lunch good,” said senior Kelly Robinson. “We’re very lucky.”