When Natalie Emcard swipes into a campus dining hall, she may not consider herself a customer. But for the chefs who toil in hot kitchens behind the scenes, students are customers. And each chef uses his or her creativity and culinary arts training to satisfy the thousands of daily patrons who bustle through the serving lines and salad bars in the University’s nine residential chow houses.
But students who may be picturing dramatic scenes from “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef” will find that University kitchens don’t exhibit the same panache, witty banter or frantic atmosphere prevalent in such TV shows.
North Quad Chef Frank Turchan — a Culinary Institute of America grad who, like many of the chefs employed at the University, has worked in a number of high-profile restaurants, country clubs and hotels — said he misses the artistry of high-pressure kitchens similar to those featured on the small screen.
“If you watch a dinner service at any of the fine restaurants, it’s almost like a dance,” he said. “No one talks, they call out orders, there’s just this flow. It’s amazing how food goes out.
“I could see down the line and it’s like an orchestra,” he added, referring to his time at the dinner theater Opus One in Detroit. “You can coordinate who’s doing what. You got the sauté station and the grill and the roaster and the broiler and it’s all crazy.”
When East Quad Chef Buzz Cummings, a 20-year veteran of Residential Dining Services, discussed his decision to work for the University, he remembered being uncertain if cooking at a “college cafeteria” would merit the same creativity as other jobs in “the business.”
His concern was not without foundation. According to Cummings, for 14 years, the policy of University dining was to mimic a “McDonald’s model.”
“If you go to Bursley to eat lasagna, you should go to East Quad and West Quad and South Quad and eat lasagna and it should be the exactly the same,” Cummings explained. “Just like McDonald’s. If you go and get a cheeseburger and fries and a milkshake here, you should be able to go to Japan and get the same thing.”
Four years ago, a new director was hired who, according to Cummings, had a different philosophy — creating a niche identity for each dining hall on campus to increase selections for the students and options for the individual chefs. Students can now see the result of this change — West Quad boasts a burrito and Mediterranean bar, the Hill Dining Center rolls sushi and North Quad specializes in international cuisine.
But University chefs aren’t given complete free creative rein. Dining Services executive chef Steve Meyers, who has worked at the University since 1986, emphasized that, while students may have a different dining experience depending on where they eat, the University still stresses standardization for dining hall basics and favorites, like the chicken broccoli bake.
Chefs are also expected to concoct meals based on other University guidelines, including vegan and vegetarian options, nutritional considerations and student allergies. And, unlike cooks at private restaurants, RDS chefs must, as Turchan described, “feed a small city” — up to 5,000 students per dining hall — every day.
Despite all the factors that must be considered when writing up each recipe and menu, Meyers believes that chefs have the creative license to dabble freely in their chosen craft.
“I think the opportunity was always there,” Meyers said. “From the day I started here, one of the discussion points was, ‘We want the food to be more exciting.’ Even back in 1986, we wanted the food to be created as nice as possible and presented as nice as possible.”
Cummings and Turchan agree with this statement, citing examples like recipe concoction, chef specials, themed dining weeks, local vegetable purchasing and special University occasions as opportunities for them to stretch their culinary muscles and take a stab at a new and exciting dish.
Turchan, who has created about 40 new recipes this academic year, believes that culinary creativity can be found in the many options a simple food item presents.
“If you look at an onion or a pepper, there’s not just one way to cut it, there’s a thousand ways to cut it — same to cook it,” Turchan said. “I’ve injected into the menu spots where the chefs can be creative. Every week (at North Quad) we have a ten-way chicken where you just have the chicken and can create your own sauce or serving style.”
Cummings echoes this sentiment, stressing that it’s the little things that make a meal superb. He cites strawberry sauce-topped cheesecake as an example. Students complained that the sauce was too lumpy and looked unappealing, so Cummings worked with students to modify the topping so that the cheesecake was brought to its full potential.
“Everything we do, we try to make it more appealing for our customers, whether it’s just a fresh sprig of parsley on a piece of roast turkey or a lighter strawberry sauce for the cheesecake,” he said.
But for Cummings and Turchan, creativity is only a part of the job. The two chefs also try to instill a passion for the culinary arts in the students they work with and meet in the dining hall. To date, Cummings has collaborated with four students who dropped out of the University and transferred to the Culinary Institute of America. But at the same time, the chefs also recognize that not every student working has gourmet aspirations and will also reach out to the casual chef.
“I love to teach people,” said Turchan. “If you want to learn to cook, just ask. You’re here for your studies, but you cook once you leave here. You can’t eat at restaurants for the rest of your life.”