What happens when your ‘wildest dreams’ come true?
When Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vt., debuted its Atwater Dining Hall at the beginning of the spring semester, the facility was an unmitigated success from Day One, judging from volume alone. Students lined up, 950 in number, to—as foodservice director Matthew Biette puts it—“kick the tires” of the new facility.
But not having had the luxury of a dry run due to a previous delay and lack of time, the new facility was overwhelmed by the volume, and the foodservice team had to improvise in a hurry with some impromptu menu adjustments.
The new equipment, the menu and the unexpectedly high customer counts didn’t quite align.
So when the cooks realized that the kitchen was not properly equipped for the preparation of the Asian-themed dinner planned for opening night, they baked the egg rolls and pan-sautéed their General Tsao’s chicken instead of using the fryers that were, at the time, inoperable.
“In our wildest dreams, we didn’t expect that many people,” says Biette. “By the end of the night we had to change the menu; there was nothing left.”
The facility’s opening days and weeks, says Biette, gave his team a culinary workout as employees were challenged to quickly address glitches in service and incompatibilities between the equipment and the menu originally planned. The effort was not in vain; it continued to be a crowd-pleaser through the semester. Staff could breath a little easier as initial volume eased up over time, but the facility worked at capacity through the school year.
Igniting excitement: Students had every reason to be excited about the opening of the new hall. It offers the visual excitement and the menu they’re seeking these days in campus dining: exhibition cooking in a modern, ambient environment. The fact that the two-storey elliptical structure, which seats 225, is constructed largely of local stones and woods harvested from Middlebury’s own multi-acre forest is a bonus.
Atwater’s service and menu is built around a suite of equipment fully visible to the customer. Cooks produce hot, mostly comfort-style, items continuously from this front-of-the-house kitchen, while students line up at the steam wells to assemble their meals.
The cooking suite includes two convection ovens, a charbroiler, a flat stainless-steel grill, a couple of fryers and a 40-gallon steam kettle, all in one footprint. The sauté station has six burners with a cold storage area for attractive merchandising, and a stone hearth oven occupies its own space. The servery has four hot service points, including the hearth oven, as well as a deli bar, dessert station and an offering of pre-made composed salads.
“I try to set up menus that highlight those equipment pieces,” says Atwater’s commons chef Ian Martin. “So say we’re doing a flatbread—we’d have a Caesar salad as well to draw students to that side of the kitchen. We may also have someone on the stainless grill, someone doing sautéed items, and something coming out of the oven.”
Full utilization: And several pieces may be used in the preparation of a single item. “Generally, we use the chargrill for marks, and then finish it up in the oven,” he says. Martin tries to employ at least three service stations and sometimes four or five during every meal period depending on the availability of labor.
The daily menu during the year generally includes at least one center-of-the-plate meat, or a meat and a fish, starches and vegetables. It focuses on American cuisines but is also peppered with ethnic offerings such as Asian or Mexican.
Dinner may be a choice of grilled chicken, sautéed scallops with cranberry cream sauce, or a grilled, butterflied leg of lamb, with an offering of roasted red potatoes, seitan with white beans and asparagus as sides. Lunch may feature a grilled bacon, tomato and Cheddar cheese sandwich, tuna melt, black bean burger or pasta cacciatore with tempeh.
Fired up: Biette says it’s the hearth oven, while not fired up every day, that is the centerpiece of the servery. “Many people look at a hearth oven as a pizza oven, but we were already serving pizza on campus. We don’t want Middlebury College to turn into Middlebury House of Pizza, so I said let’s make sure we bake and roast in it. And the chef and his staff really embraced that.”
When the hearth oven is fired, cooks produce any number of casseroles such a macaroni and cheese, or frittata, omelets, flatbread pizzas, stuffed hot sandwiches that are similar to calzones, and occasionally meats such chicken or turkey breast. Biette says he hopes the team will soon use the oven for over-night slow roasting, starting, perhaps, with pork butt.
Come and gone: Biette says students don’t mind waiting for these hearth creations. “The food comes hot out of the oven, is portioned to the plate—and it’s gone!” he exclaims.
The menu reflects the location’s service pieces and is different in quite a few ways from previous and existing Middlebury dining options, since it’s equipped with more firepower than fryer power. “We used to have an appetizer night [in a former facility] and a lot of the appetizers the students loved were fried,” he explains.
“When you have a gazillion BTUs worth of three old-fashioned, 1969 industrial fryers—they’ve got capacity—you can really pump out the items. You can’t do that same menu with two smaller baskets in one system.”
As a result of this change, he adds, the menu is taking on a slightly more healthful profile as compared to the menus of other operations.
Straight line of fire: Atwater serves about 300 to 400 customers for breakfast, 500 to 700 for lunch and 600 to 800 for dinner—manageable but certainly challenging numbers for what is more or less straight-line service using steam wells, as cooks continuously prepare meals in small batches.
The dining hall’s menu is one that Biette says can and will evolve. He says the facility was designed for longevity and flexibility, with a kitchen that is meant to age well—or rather not at all—since it’s much easier to “change a menu than to change a kitchen.” He sought to give staff a strong foundation from which to work and hopes good planning will stave off the need for more renovation any time soon.
“A lot of people design for the menu, but I don’t buy that; I’m too frugal,” he notes. “I can’t see constantly rebuilding or doing a total rehab; but I can see gussying up a little bit. If you have good quality pieces of equipment you can work magic with your menu.”