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Archive for Monday, December 17, 2007

Final course

Longtime Head Start chef retiring

Phil Minkin, who has been the chef for Lawrence's Head Start for more than 30 years, is shown working with a group of students at one of the program sites, Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. He is retiring Friday.

Phil Minkin, who has been the chef for Lawrence's Head Start for more than 30 years, is shown working with a group of students at one of the program sites, Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. He is retiring Friday.

December 17, 2007

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Phil Minkin, who has been the chef for Lawrence's Head Start for more than 30 years, is shown working with a group of students at one of the program sites, Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. He is retiring Friday.

Phil Minkin, who has been the chef for Lawrence's Head Start for more than 30 years, is shown working with a group of students at one of the program sites, Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. He is retiring Friday.

This is how much the preschoolers at Head Start love Mr. Phil.

It used to be, every time he walked into a classroom to deliver food, the students all wanted to get up and give him a hug. This created a logistical nightmare for teachers trying to do their daily lessons.

So instead, the teachers started having the kids "throw" a group hug to Mr. Phil. He shimmies with a big smile to let them know he did, in fact, receive their hugs.

These are the moments Mr. Phil - Phil Minkin - will miss.

After 33 years as chef for Lawrence's Head Start program, Minkin will retire on Friday.

"You have 78 kids who think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread," Minkin says. "I'll be in the grocery store and see a 6'2" guy who says, 'Mr. Phil, you used to cook for me.'"

Minkin, who has a degree in restaurant management from Michigan State University, worked as a chef at several Kansas City-area restaurants before he got burned out.

So he and a friend moved to Lawrence to start a commune ("That never quite happened," he says), and eventually he applied for the job with Head Start, a preschool for low-income children ages 3 to 5.

"I like cooking, and I don't like management," Minkin says. "I'm a far better cook than a manager."

He would only miss eight days of work for the next 33 years.

The job involved preparing breakfast, lunch and a snack for the 78 students involved in the program. The children eat family-style in their classroom.

"I try to introduce the kids to new foods," Minkin says. "Part of the job is maintaining a balance - what's best from a nutrition standpoint, with what kids will eat."

For instance, he could serve plain oatmeal for breakfast. But he's figured out the children will only eat it with a little sugar.

Or, on the flip side, he's found the preschoolers will eat French fries without ketchup, which is high in sugar.

Minkin, 65, says children sometimes don't get enough credit for trying new foods. But he says he's had luck with Brussels sprouts, kiwi, asparagus, lima beans and jicama, among others. And children especially like spinach, he says, and this year cauliflower is popular.

"Every year is somewhat different," he says. "For some reason this year, they're not interested in JELL-O."

Minkin has gone out of his way not to just serve typical school cafeteria foods. For instance, he makes chicken parmesan with diced chicken instead of a whole breast, and a scaled-back chicken curry.

"Nothing that makes the backs of your knees sweat, like you'd get at an Indian restaurant," he says.

Though most of his job is in the kitchen, Minkin takes time to teach about nutrition, whether it's having children wash fruits and vegetables in the classroom or sending home nutritional information sheets to parents.

'Best job'

Minkin has been a positive male role model, says Carolyn Kelly, executive director of the local Head Start program.

"He's been a rock for our program for so many years," Kelly says. "We're very saddened to see him retire. The kids adore Mr. Phil. They absolutely love him."

Kelly says Minkin has done a good job of getting children to eat food, especially since young children can be picky eaters.

"We have our little policy of taking a 'no-thank-you' bite," she says. "Everyone gets to experience and taste the food. We do ask, but we don't force them to try anything."

As for retirement, Minkin says he doesn't have any big plans. He'll cook more at home and watch a lot of movies - he's a big movie buff. He also is president of the Douglas County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I tell people frequently this is the best job in Lawrence," he says of Head Start. "I want to make sure I quit while I still think this is the greatest job in Lawrence."

As for his last meal on Friday, Minkin says he hasn't prepared anything special.

"It's like the condemned man's last meal," he says with a laugh. "I haven't really given it any thought."

He pauses and jokes that he should prepare steak and lobster for the children on Friday.

But, he admits, "they'd probably rather have pizza."

Comments

Alice Lieberman 6 years, 4 months ago

Here's a fun fact that the article missed: when Phil went in to apply for the Head Start job 33 years ago, they very nearly did not hire him. Why? Because he was so well-trained and so experienced in cooking, that they thought he would leave quickly for greener pastures. They just didn't know Phil, I guess. For folks in this town whose concerns have been about the well-being of kids, Phil, we thank our lucky stars for what you have done for them all these years.

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msontheroad 6 years, 4 months ago

I can't top sisterjudy but I did meet Phil in kindergarden (I think) at Troost School in KC. We both had Ms. Kickbush for kindergarden. Phil has always worked hard and inspired those around him to do better...at the Country Club Dairy, at the Golden Drumstick (both in KC) and at the Lawrence Head Start Program. Phil, thank you old friend for being a part of my life. Michael Schwartz Swannanoa, North Carolina

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sisterjudy 6 years, 4 months ago

I've known Mr. Phil for over 65 years and have long been in awe of his accomplishments. A big fan of his culinary skills, I'm always amazed at what he can quickly put together for a tasty meal. His many years at Head Start have made an indelible impression on hundreds of children and parents. He will be sorely missed.

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dakotaloomis 6 years, 4 months ago

I've been lucky enough to have sampled Phil's cooking and hospitality for over 20 years. Phil is a treasured Lawrence institution and a wonderful soul. I'll be dropping change around the neighborhood now that you have enough time to thoroughly beat Mayberger.

Dakota Loomis

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Ian Sotomayor 6 years, 4 months ago

Mr. Phill You are truly the greatest! Best wishes on your retirement. My daughter had the best preschool experience there not to mention the no thank you policy is one I admire! Way to go Mr. Phill.

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LawSW 6 years, 4 months ago

I also did my practicum at Head Start and my son attended HS there too. Phil was about the friendliest staff members and he made you feel welcome. I always liked your political insights in the newspaper. Best wishes for your retirement, happy cooking, and make the most of the next phase of your life Phil--you deserve it!

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sunflowerks54 6 years, 4 months ago

I did my practicum at Head Start and my son attended Head Start when it was in the Congregational Church on Vermont. The staff, the kids, and volunteers all loved you and the wonderful work you did. God bless you and Happy retirement.

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kef104 6 years, 4 months ago

Phil is a wonderful man and Head Start will miss him greatly. I spent a few years working for Head Start and there is not enough praise for his influence on both children and staff.
While the article focused on his Head Start career, it is worth noting he also authored the KU-Lawrence Trivia Book and collects salt and pepper shakers.

Thank you Phil

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kappyblu 6 years, 4 months ago

My son has tried foods he never has before, thanks to him!! My kids adore Mr. Phil. Everyday when we are leaving they always yell, "Bye Mr. Phil!!" He always says bye bye back to them. They will miss him very much.
Best wishes for your retirement!!

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DB Ashton 6 years, 4 months ago

Mr Phil...

You used to do a lot more than just cook for me, you skinny old man.

Well done, mate. That's an order...

Enjoy...

DB Ashton (from Ireland)

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Bobbi Reid 6 years, 4 months ago

Mr. Phil best of luck. My daughter tried foods at Head Start I never thought to have her try at home.. Thanks a million.

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jayhawkjg 6 years, 4 months ago

Mr. Phil, good job, My daughter attended head start when it moved from KU to the 400 block of Maine, I served on the board when Bobbie was director. Good luck in your retirement. Once again. GREAT JOB. (Judy)

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Richard Heckler 6 years, 4 months ago

Good job Mr. Phil and enjoy retirement.

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