Blame it on the popularity of cooking shows, on celebrity chefs, the Chipotle effect or just plain sophistication, but the dining tastes of Americans have been changing over the past decade. They want more variety and healthier options. College students are no different.
For the chefs at Kalamazoo College (K) in Michigan, meeting the diverse taste buds and dietary needs for the 800 students on the meal plan is a huge challenge, not to mention keeping the menu fresh and costs down.
“Students of this generation are health conscious.”
— James Chantanasombut, executive chef at Kalamazoo College
“They want food that is fresh from scratch, and demand variety,” Chantanasombut said. Add to this the many dietary needs and large number of healthy-food requests, and the challenges grow even more staggering. “We cook dishes that are gluten-free, hormone-free dairy, vegan, vegetarian, and we work in partnership with those who have food allergies,” said Chantanasombut. “We have even had students bring in their own organic meat for us to cook. We work hard to meet all of these needs.”
Meeting these needs isn’t easy by any stretch. It’s hard enough to manage food costs for students and college staff, but it’s an added challenge when making so many special dishes with seasonal, local ingredients.
One of the advantages of being a chef in a college setting is the built-in clientele. Chefs know how much food to prepare because of the consistent number of people served each day. However, that becomes complicated when trying to meet the many different tastes at Kalamazoo College.
A four-year college of liberal arts and sciences with 1,500 students, K's dining services department serves 1,200 meals per day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To meet those demands, the main dining hall, Welles, has seven “all you care to eat” stations, and there are two retail operations, including a grab-and-go sandwich shop called Richardson Room and a coffee shop called Book Club Café that are both open until midnight. Two kitchens handle prep for the three areas and catering.
Director/Executive Chef Chantanasombut, Production Chef James Meade and Assistant Director Estelle Bean work hard to provide the variety at mealtime that faculty and students are seeking – including meeting the changing taste buds of students who study abroad.
“This is a very diverse campus with clientele that includes international students, students with special dietary needs, or healthy eating requests,” said Meade. “They lean towards eating organic, non-GMO and local. Eighty percent of our students study abroad. They come back from those countries and expect the traditional dishes they have sampled while away. It can be challenging to source the ingredients to meet the trend of authentic cuisine.”
To provide a full range of foods for each dietary segment, the kitchen staff meets to discuss the menu well in advance. They incorporate a five-week cycle to their menu, making changes daily. They also talk to students and work with awareness groups on campus, like Farms to K, which emphasizes locally grown food.
“As we discuss our menu, we pick new trends and repeat the items that were winners, or cash cows,” said Chantanasombut. “We want everyone to be able to find what they want to eat at each meal, and students have reacted well to our offerings.”
Having something for every dining patron is definitely a priority, as is meeting goals for sustainably sourcing local. “Some of our campus groups are vocal about sourcing local,” said Chantanasombut. “They are happy with what we provide with the budgetary restrictions we have, and we always back that up with discussions surrounding our practices in order to create better understanding.”
The dining services department at K purchases and tracks products grown or produced within 150 miles of Kalamazoo. They visit farmers’ markets to source products for the dining hall or catering, and talk with the Farms to K group. To even be considered, all providers selected must first have good sanitation and safety practices, and they should also expect a visit from the dining services team at K who observe every detail.
“One of our providers, The Grainery, has a mill on site and mills whole oats (roats) in 50-pound bags. These oats are fresh-milled right in front of you. It’s an example of a great Midwest company that supports our local economy,” said Chantanasombut.
The K foodservice department also purchases sustainably fished seafood, uses compostable disposables, and employs water- and energy-saving measures throughout the entire operation.
Both Chantanasombut and Meade recognize and appreciate these initiatives but admit achieving them can be difficult.
“One of our challenges is creating a wide variety of foods, all from scratch, for seven different serving stations in our all-you-care-to-eat area using the number of employees we have.”
“Another challenge is seasonality and sourcing local ingredients, since we are located in Michigan,” said Chantanasombut. “By the time winter arrives, our locally farmed ingredients are limited to fresh carrots, potatoes and apples from our fall harvest. This year we plan to make pesto from our basil grown in summer to last through the off-season.”
While the main kitchen at K manages the all-you-care-to-eat stations, along with the catering operation, a second kitchen functions as the bakery and prep area for the retail operations. With so many meals to make and considerations to take, there are 100 employees on staff, with 10 people per shift working the main kitchen and all-you-care-to-eat areas.
The K kitchen personnel rely on many tools to help reach their goals and keep diners satisfied. “Our best tools are the employees,” said Meade. “It takes a reliable, hard-working staff to accomplish what we do.”
The team also relies on tools from KitchenAid® Commercial to make cooking from scratch easier and quicker. “We use the dual-speed immersion blender to make pesto, soups and sauces. We love the wire whisk attachment for the cheese sauce. It works really well for that and for whipped cream,” said Meade.
The 12-inch blending arm helps the team crush, purée and chop. Meade says the blending arm has proven to be very helpful in preparing the many made-from-scratch items served daily, and the time saved is also an advantage that helps to keep costs down.
During Easter week, the KitchenAid® Commercial immersion blender helped the team work faster when they prepared buttercream frosting for holiday cookies. “We took the white frosting and split it among seven bowls that each contained a different color,” said Meade. “We put the whisk into each one to blend the color, and then just rinsed the whisk in the sink between colors. It was quick and easy, taking half the time as our old way of preparing this frosting.”
While today’s college students may demand more from their meal plan than previous generations, preparing these fresh items doesn’t have to be hard when the right tools are available to help the dining team make food faster.
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