While Cornell University’s Risley Dining Room is more than 100 years old, the meals served inside reflect one of the biggest modern dietary movements—everything is gluten-free. Students can be found dining on trendy meals such as freshly made poke, tostadas and stir-fry, which also are free of peanuts and tree nuts.
“I think that’s what our consumers today truly expect from a dining perspective,” says Dustin Cutler, Cornell’s director of dining. “Never before have we seen this upcoming generation so in tune with the food scene.”
That innovation has become the trademark for the university’s recent initiatives. In the past year alone, the Ithaca, N.Y., school has become the first in the country to offer kosher-certified ice cream from its on-campus dairy, and has opened the nation’s second 100% certified gluten-, peanut- and tree nut-free dining facility. The dining team has also launched its own sustainable container program, and continues to introduce new and full-scale dining events that involve a wide breadth of the Cornell community.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Pioneers in meal innovation
While Risley Dining Room reopened at the beginning of February, the process of switching to gluten- and allergen-free dishes began a couple of years earlier—unbeknownst to students.
Instead of advertising its gluten-free offerings before the revamp, Cornell’s dining team slowly and quietly rolled out the dishes. Their fear: If meals were spotlighted as gluten-free, students would assume they lacked flavor.
When planning the new menu items, Kevin Grant, chef and manager at Risley, decided against traditional college fare. “The main thing I wanted to avoid was giving people gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta and gluten-free pizza as the staples,” Grant says. “I didn’t want to just directly replace pizza for pizza, bun for bun, because it’s not going to be as good.”
Instead, Grant opted for a flavor-forward approach. At the grill station, smash burgers are composed of a housemade blend that contains 40% mushrooms. The burgers, which come in a variety of flavors such as gyro and Southwest jalapeno, are grilled to order and laid on a bed of arugula instead of a bun. “What you’re receiving is so fresh and so flavorful that you’re not going to actually think, ‘Where’s my bread?’” Grant says.
Grant’s flavor-focused approach is working. When the dining team polled students who had dined at Risley after making the switch, 47% did not realize the eatery had become gluten- and allergen-free.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Serving the full community
Cornell’s healthful initiatives aren’t limited to students with restricted diets. When not advising students, Cornell’s Director of Nutrition Michele Lefebvre works with students to host multilayered pop-up nutrition events that aim to educate the community.
This semester, Lefebvre and her team of dietetic students hosted a Grains and Greens event during national nutrition month. Members of the student body were invited to pledge to eat at least one grain and one green for five days. “That was a huge success,” says Lefebvre. “We had just shy of 1,500 students pledge.”
Beyond nutrition-focused events, the dining team remains busy throughout the year hosting meals inspired by the likes of “Game of Thrones” and “Harry Potter,” serving themed dishes such as Ned’s head potatoes and herbology salad with liquid luck vinaigrette. One of the newest themed events, World Cuisine Night, was held in March. For one meal swipe, students were able to visit each all-you-care-to-eat dining room to experience a different international cuisine.
“We really wanted to allow our chefs to celebrate their creativity,” Cutler says. “We also sat around a table and said, ‘How can we provide value to our students? How do they get a full experience of all of our dining facilities if they don’t traditionally go to all of them?’”
Going forward, Cutler hopes to incorporate more campus-wide dining events into the calendar and, on a much larger scale, sit down and create a master dining and vision plan.
“Cornell Dining is a very food-forward program,” he says. “Enabling our culinarians to be creative and providing a tremendous amount of variety and healthy options are really the pillars of our execution, from a culinary perspective.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Dustin Cutler
Director of Dining, Cornell University
Q: What role does student feedback play in your program?
A: I have always leveraged the ideas that students bring to the table, because they are very in tune to what the current trends are. I think it’s very important to listen to your consumers. Our dining program needs to know areas of opportunity and where we’re winning, and consumer feedback is a great vehicle for figuring out what the trends are and what they want from the program.
Q: What are your students asking for when it comes to dining?
A: Generation Z is looking for customizable options. They want quality, value, convenience and healthy items. They also appreciate consistent service. In my opinion they are willing to tweet about an outstanding experience from a customer service perspective, not just from having great food.
At a Glance: Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
- Menu items offered: +13,000
- Cultures represented in the dishes served: 50
- Price of a reusable carryout container: $7.50
- First in the nation to offer kosher-certified ice cream at an on-campus dairy
- Second in the nation to offer a completely gluten-free eatery on campus