Nathan Dirnberger has been driven to follow his dream to be a leader - and he's getting his chance.
Dirnberger, 27, is the newly hired executive chef for School District 11. But it hasn't been an easy journey for this young chef. His parents divorced when he was 5, leaving his mom to raise him and three older siblings.
"She was doing the best she could," he said. "I can remember having spaghetti for dinner with a sauce made of ketchup and water. That was what she had to work with."
Because the family struggled to make ends meet, Dirnberger was one of the students on the free or reduced-cost lunch program at District 11. Academically, he held his own until he hit the middle school years.
"I got a job at Par Avion," he said. "I was 13. I started working more and not going to school as much. I was more interested in what was going on at the store and I liked making the money."
The job introduced Dirnberger to fine food. Par Avion was called Sebastiani's Gourmet World until 2000. It was opened by Jim and Karen Sebastiani in 1994 as a purveyor of specialty imported cheeses, meats and gourmet foods.
"I was like a kid in a candy store," Dirnberger said.
The Sebastianis became like family to him. But he dropped out of Doherty High School at 16.
It wasn't long, though, before "I had an epiphany," he said. "If I wanted to control my destiny, I have to go to school."
So, at 17, he went to night school.
"I worked during the day at Blue Star with James Davis," he said. "He was the one who inspired me to be a chef. ... I had seen all the beautiful ingredients at Par Avion, and he (Davis) showed me how to take those ingredients and make beautiful dishes."
Sealing the deal
He finished his high school requirements, then went on to complete three associate degrees at Pikes Peak Community College: baking and pastry, food service management and culinary arts. In 2010, he was named Student Chef of the Year, and he graduated in May 2011.
Michael Paradiso, chair of the culinary arts department at Pikes Peak Community College, had high praise for Dirnberger. "I have seen him grow into a strong, reliable, professional individual who gives his passion to his field of choice," said Paradiso, who added that Dirnberger created the Culinary Arts Club and was its president for two years. "He dedicated his time initializing sustainability practices as well as establishing the community garden for fellow students. This led to him being voted in as student government president." Paradiso added that PPCC has continued those sustainability practices to this day.
During the six years he attended those college classes, Dirnberger worked and learned from chefs at some of the top restaurants in town, including the now-defunct Craftwood Inn, La Petite Maison and The Ritz.
"Nate was very passionate about cooking and food when he started with me," said Jay Gust, who was executive chef at The Ritz when Dirnberger worked there (and who is now a partner and executive chef at Tapateria). "He was always asking questions and very much was a sponge for knowledge."
Dirnberger's first "real" job out of college was at Nosh as an $8-an-hour line cook. After six months, he was moved up to sous chef. When Nosh's executive chef left to open his own restaurant in New York City, Dirnberger moved into that position and stayed there for a year. Then he took a job at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, first as a sous chef, then executive chef.
Now, having started his education at District 11, he returns to the district as the executive chef overseeing the vast D-11 Good Food Project.
"Our team was looking for someone who had a strong culinary background, actually working with food in kitchens," said Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for the district. "We were looking for someone who could take the D-11 Good Food Project to the next level, serving healthy, fresh food to students and staff in our district's community. We needed a servant-leader in our head culinarian who can work with our 350 staff members in 65 locations daily to create awesomeness in our kitchens.
"I believe that we have found that in chef Nathan, and I feel blessed to have him on board."
Dirnberger intends to spend time with students to find out what they like eating and incorporate those ideas into new cafeteria dishes following the guidelines for the D-11 Good Food Project.
The basis for "Good Food" is based on eliminating highly processed foods and making food from scratch rather than opening a box or a can.
Food that comes from a farm, instead of food from a factory. At the district's Galileo School of Math and Science, a gardening class has been added to the curriculum.
A 42-foot geodesic dome greenhouse was built in 2011 to become a lab for the class. The greenhouse produces lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, spinach and squash for the school salad bar and lunch menu.
Dirnberger will create recipes using the produce to encourage students to eat a wide variety of vegetables. Plans for the D-11 Good Food Project includes adding more gardening classes to other district schools with enclosed and raised vegetable gardens to support the cafeteria.