How Rochester Institute of Technology fosters connections through food

rochester

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) isn’t actually in Rochester. The campus is 6 miles away from town in Henrietta, N.Y. And for college students, that 6 miles can feel like a world away. But RIT is bridging the gap between campus and city communities—through food.

“Like many school campuses, it can feel a bit like we’re on our own island,” says Don LaFlam, senior director of operations for RIT’s student auxiliary services. “It would be easy for students not to feel like they’re part of the Rochester community, so we work hard to bring the city to them in a number of ways.” 

Read on to see how the school is doing just that. 

Photograph: Shutterstock

Increasing diversity

RIT

Community-bolstering efforts include a unique Visiting Chefs program, in which six Rochester restaurants serve special dishes on campus throughout the school year. These businesses are often minority-owned and focus on authentic cuisine from other cultures: Vietnamese, Dominican, Chinese, Pakistani and more.

“We’ve seen some schools do the occasional ‘visiting chef sushi’ once a month or even once a week, but we wanted to take it several steps further,” says Kory Samuels, RIT’s executive director of dining services. “Our visiting chefs are here every weekday, all year, so they become part of the fabric of our foodservice.”

The seeds of what would become the extensive Visiting Chefs program were planted years ago, with one dining location hosting a few times a week. Samuels moved into a management role a year later, and over time he and others saw an opportunity to expand the program and bring exciting new foods to RIT.

To identify potential Visiting Chefs candidates, Samuels, LaFlam and their foodservice staff stay on top of the Rochester dining scene and try the food at various locations so they can report back. “We keep an open mind,” Samuels says, but generally the RIT team is looking for a particularly special dish or a cuisine that either isn’t served in a certain section of campus or isn’t currently represented at all.

Photograph courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

A culture of sharing

RIT

The offerings rotate, but Visiting Chefs participants have served Pakistani dishes such as chicken balti and chana masala with basmati rice; Dominican specialties including stewed beef and pigeon peas; and beyond-just-ribs barbecue such as brisket and grill-charred corn. The RIT team takes care of signage and marketing, letting the restaurants focus on the food, and they often arrange contracts that allow students to use their meal-card Tiger Bucks to dine at the restaurants’ Rochester locations.

“It’s like having a research and development division, and it goes both ways,” Samuels says. “We might discover new cooking and presentation styles from visiting chefs, and they can learn from us about how to prep and serve at a volume they’ll never see in a traditional restaurant setting.”

LaFlam agrees, saying Visiting Chefs “is a way to fill in some of the voids we have culinarily, while at the same time making Rochester even more a part of RIT. It’s so rewarding to be able to create something new and exciting, especially on a campus where many guests are eating with us daily.”

Photograph courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

Making it work

RIT

The offerings rotate, but Visiting Chefs participants have served Pakistani dishes such as chicken balti and chana masala with basmati rice; Dominican specialties including stewed beef and pigeon peas; and beyond-just-ribs barbecue such as brisket and grill-charred corn. The RIT team takes care of signage and marketing, letting the restaurants focus on the food, and they often arrange contracts that allow students to use their meal-card Tiger Bucks to dine at the restaurants’ Rochester locations.

“It’s like having a research and development division, and it goes both ways,” Samuels says. “We might discover new cooking and presentation styles from visiting chefs, and they can learn from us about how to prep and serve at a volume they’ll never see in a traditional restaurant setting.”

LaFlam agrees, saying Visiting Chefs “is a way to fill in some of the voids we have culinarily, while at the same time making Rochester even more a part of RIT. It’s so rewarding to be able to create something new and exciting, especially on a campus where many guests are eating with us daily.”

Photograph courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

Seeds of inspiration

RIT

Programs such as Visiting Chefs are especially ripe for learning opportunities, he adds, because “no one person has all of the right answers. Foodservice changes constantly, so you need to be open to new ideas.”

LaFlam suggests starting by showcasing staffers’ unique skills: “Maybe someone is willing to share their favorite Vietnamese dish their mother makes, or someone else worked at a Thai restaurant and could make an entree once a week.”

The ultimate point, LaFlam says, is to lift up and celebrate unique aspects of the community. “Inspiration is everywhere if you know where to look, and through food we can bring together those different points of view.”

Photograph courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

Meet the FSD: Kory Samuels

Kory Samuels

Executive Director of Dining Services, Rochester Institute of Technology

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A: I’d like to bring our use of data and analytics to the next level. We of course have technology systems in place to operate our business, and that provides helpful information about what’s working and what isn’t, but I think we’re not as plugged in as we could be. I’d also like to get even more dialed in with our community, continuing to foster ties with Rochester at large.

Finally, I really believe that you don’t get recognized in this way were it not for some pretty darn dedicated people. We, like other service departments, do our work in the shadows, and most of the time no one’s paying attention. I want to make sure more of our team members are recognized for their efforts, because they’re the center of everything we do.

Photograph courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

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