When Ron DeSantis, former consultant at the Culinary Institute of America, heard that Yale University, in new Haven, Conn., was looking to fill a new position for director of culinary excellence he was intrigued by how such a position could make a big impact. Three months into his new gig—he officially started in September—DeSantis talked to FSD about what he’s learned, the challenges he sees and his hopes for the future. When Ron DeSantis, former consultant at the Culinary Institute of America, heard that Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., was looking to fill a new position for director of culinary excellence he was intrigued by how such a position could make a big impact. Three months into his new gig—he officially started in September—DeSantis talked to FSD about what he’s learned, the challenges he sees and his hopes for the future.
Since I had been a part of CIA Consulting I was approaching Rafi [Taherian, director of Yale Dining] about reviving some programs between Yale and the CIA and I heard about this position. We started to talk about the position and I realized that instead of me jumping from company to company as a consultant and trying to make a small impact, I could become a part of Yale and make a significant impact every single day. I realized the position would be able to really change things long term for Yale’s culinary team and impact their students in a positive way. Rafi wasn’t trying to lure me away or anything like that. We were just having a conversation about things Yale was trying to accomplish and I was intrigued by what the position was and it really spoke to my strengths. We had a follow-up conversation and discovered that I could be a really strong candidate.
The director of culinary excellence position really has to do with the quality of food from its origin to the plate. Are we sourcing and purchasing the best ingredients that meet the quality and sustainability message of Yale? Once [the food] gets here, how are we handling it? What are we doing with the food from a culinary perspective to make sure that we bring an excellent product to the students every time. Then [the position] follows through with the preparation and presentation of the food as well. Our serveries need to be functional and aesthetically pleasing and at the same time the foods have to speak for themselves. They have to be bright, exciting and look alive. That is my responsibility.
There wasn’t any one thing. The position allowed me the opportunity to become part of an organization as opposed to being a consultant and moving from organization to organization. Being a consultant is great, you can impact a lot of organizations but many times you don’t have the follow through. You don’t get to close the loop. Here I’m allowed to close the loop. Plus, you can feel Rafi’s excitement and passion for great food and the delivery of it every single day to the student body.
The early challenge has simply been to learn where things are and who everyone is. From there, I’ve had to learn about the menu structure and the variety of processes to get things done. One of my first challenges was to get to know who the chefs are and to let them meet and understand who I am. I’ve gotten the chance to speak with every single chef in all of our outlets and I spent about four or five hours in each outlet. I wanted to really understand what was going on and get a sense of the rhythm of what’s happening in each one. That was a cool piece. When meeting with the chefs we talked about food philosophy. They told me about their challenges and they told me about the things that make their jobs great and the things that we need to fix. It was really good to do that up front.
I’ve learned how fresh their food is and about the quality of raw product, which is absolutely fantastic. I learned that the facilities are impeccable and they’ve got great equipment to work with. I learned that the team is very proud of what they are doing. The thing that they really love is that they are delivering to the students every single day. They recognize that they are an important part of a students’ daily life on campus. If we are putting out great food and have a staff that is happy and motivated that does have an impact in students’ lives.
I’ll tell you just little bit because I haven’t shared my plan with the entire team yet. The important piece is it is all about culinary excellence. What makes up culinary excellence is the team, the menu, our innovation process and then other new opportunities. We will be exploring each one of those. I’ve got some immediate things that I’ll be focusing on such as convening a chef council, which is really important for the team. Right now, we are undergoing a menu review. Immediately, we also are looking at ways to innovate basic processes. For example, we just started trying to finalize the process to get a great Caesar salad out to the students every single time. Looking at how to make sure the salad is not sitting in dressing, it’s not wilted, the croutons are crispy and there’s the right amount of cheese. So we worked on implementing a smoother process to make that happen. Right now we also are planning a new retail outlet and that will be more like global noodle bowls.
Those are some of the immediate needs. That’s just the first few months. We’ve got some crazy plans for the future. Down the road, I’m looking at industry leadership in our menus and new concepts for student dining. How does world cuisine impact our team, our menu and our business development? We’ve got a lot of great things coming down the road.
Check out photos from FSD's recent visit to Yale University on our Facebook page.