Gary Coltek: Seeking what’s next

Coltek used his passion for sustainability to transform his program.

At a Glance

  • 16,000 students on meal plan
  • Nine dining locations
  • 230 employees
  • Up to 8,000 residential meals served a day 

Accomplishments

GARY COLTEK has transformed dining services at KENNESAW STATE UNIVERSITY by:

  • IMPLEMENTING small-batch cooking into The Commons dining hall infrastructure, allowing more dishes to be made to order
  • MAKING sustainability the program’s backbone, from a closed-loop waste management system to using product from three campus farms
  • SPEARHEADING the creation of a new culinary sustainability and hospitality academic program
  • BUILDING a team with varied skill sets that doesn’t need to be micromanaged 

Beyond waste management, it is what the department has been able to procure locally that is really impressive. The department receives the bounty of three campus farms, an on-campus permaculture garden and more than 10 hydroponic units located in The Commons.

For Coltek, this passion for sustainability was ingrained from an early age. “My grandparents had a farm in upstate New York where we’d work in the spring and summer,” Coltek says. “I remember taking the kitchen scraps out and dumping them in the field. We were taught to respect the land and the oceans.”

Culinary program

Coltek and his team have recently fused this passion for great food and sustainability by launching a new academic program for the university that will award degrees in culinary sustainability and hospitality.

“When I first came to the university, starting a culinary program was one of the first initiatives I discussed with the university president,” Coltek says. “Then last year we hired a director and we’ll be accepting our first students this fall.”

The program will offer a B.S. in culinary sustainability and hospitality, which the program prospectus says is “designed as a unique approach to the study of culinary and hospitality management, transcending the traditional culinary arts or hospitality management curricula to incorporate and infuse the study of sustainable best-practices employed around the world, emphasizing areas like food science, nutrition, agroecology, resource conservation, as well as essential business skills/abilities.” In addition to classwork, students will also partake in internships.

Coltek says the university took a different approach with its culinary program than those at other universities, which he says usually design the academic program first, then build a lab.

“With the construction of The Commons, the farms and the hydroponics, we basically built the lab first,” Coltek says. “We smoke our own meats and make our own cheeses and pickles. We’re looking into putting in a dry-aged meat room. The facility is also one of the largest freestanding LEED-certified Gold dining halls in the country.

“What excites me is that students who have an interest in our field don’t have to leave the state anymore,” Coltek says. “When they leave the state, they don’t usually come back. Another great thing about the program is that it is teaching what is relevant now. Some programs are still teaching old techniques. This is teaching what chefs need to know right now.”

Team building

Coltek credits the “best team in the country” with all his success. How was he able to build it?

“Every single member of our team are people I have hand picked,” Coltek says. “A lot of them grow into their positions and all of them have earned their responsibilities. We all work off each other every single day. I come up with ideas and they bring me back to reality. I think the biggest job they have is keeping me in check. I never micromanage. I let the pilot fly the plane. I present the end goal and [the staff] knows how to get there.”

McMahon says Coltek has also created a collaborative team environment.

“He puts people around him with varying skill sets that are able to do many things in many areas,” McMahon says. “I may be the marketing manager, but I have my hands in pretty much every aspect of the business here. I would say the same about everyone on our team. Gary’s very good about picking people who really know their business, so we have a really nice cohesive group.”  

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