Gold Plate winner Rafi Taherian's secrets to success

The head of foodservice operations at Yale University was chosen Saturday for the prestigious foodservice honor.

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

rafi taherian

Just days after accepting the 2016 Golden Plate, Yale Hospitality Associate Vice President Rafi Taherian was back on the stage.

Taherian chronicled the changes in foodservice during the New Haven, Conn., university’s 300-year history at Monday’s noncommercial conference segment of the National Restaurant Association show. While changes in college dining were relatively unexciting for decades, he said, a real “Big Bang” happened in the 1980s, driven by the quality of available chefs, new technology and the demands of ever-maturing diners.

"We own the space for innovations right now," he told the audience Monday, adding that while in the past, college dining fell in the shadow of chain restaurants, “Now, they would never take their dates to Sizzler!”

Taherian himself has been a huge part of that “Big Bang,” taking over Yale Dining in 2008 as it moved from contract management to self-operated. “It was very unusual at the time for a college foodservice to be brought back under the management of the institution,” Taherian said in a Yale News release, “and it was also extremely challenging.” The transition, he explains in the release, required building a team to provide operational leadership, purchasing, menu development, culinary quality assurance, finance and business administration, communication and facility design—while convincing the university community that the new foodservice system would be an improvement.

The university—and its students—seem to be convinced. Programs from Final Cut, an annual “Top Chef”-style undergraduate competition, to The Foodie Program, which invites world-class chefs to cook for Yale students, have become tradition. As Taherian said Monday, "The notion of comfort food has not changed, but the definition has changed." So in 2015, Yale Hospitality sourced all grass-fed beef and lamb, and purchases of plant-based proteins are up 40 percent over the past five years. Taherian, who serves more than 14,000 meals per day at Yale Hospitality’s 32 campus locations, said Monday the university environment allows him freedoms that traditional restaurant operators just don’t have.

"We have the room to take risks, since we have a captive audience for four years," he told the audience of his student diners. If a trendy grain salad gets screwed up one day, chefs can tweak it and bring it back the next day—students will keep coming.

Taherian was chosen for the Gold Plate, the equivalent of Operator of the Year, from among the nine foodservice executives who were adjudged the best within their respective channels. Those segment standouts, the winners of a Silver Plate, included:

  • Diane Imrie, University of Vermont Medical Center, healthcare feeding
  • Jeff Denton, Ponca City, Fla., public schools, elementary and secondary schools
  • Mike Barclay, Southern Foodservice Management, business and industry
  • Rick Abramson, Delaware North, specialty foodservice
  • Steve Carley, CEO of Red Robin, winner of the full-service restaurant category
  • Charlie Morrison, CEO of Wingstop, limited service
  • Thom Sehnert, founder-proprietor of Annie Gunn’s and Smokehouse Market, independent restaurants

Winners of the Gold and Silver Plates were chosen by a jury that included past winners and the editors of foodservice publications. The selection group included Peter Romeo, representing FoodService Director and Restaurant Business magazines.

The Silver Plate winners were recognized in a gala event that coincides with the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago.

Taherian was named FoodService Director’s 2013 Foodservice Director of the Year, and also received the Yale University Ivy Award in April for “his tireless commitment to feed the New Haven community by buying local and supporting local businesses and nonprofits,” according to a Yale News release.

Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA, announced that begining next year the NRA will partner with the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association, which presents the Silver and Gold Plate Awards, to sponsor an Industry Legends Award that will be given out during the 2017 IFMA Gold and Silver Plate Awards Celebration. “Our goal is to create an award that will recognize an individual’s lifetime contributions to the advancement of the culinary industry and recognize extraordinary restaurateurs that have indelibly changed the landscape,” said Sweeney. 

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