Feeding customers from scratch—fast

pizza flour

The secret to a homestyle Sunday gravy and roast is time—and plenty of it. But when you’re in charge of churning out 45,000 meals daily from 7 a.m. until midnight, like University of Massachusetts Amherst Director of Residential Dining Garett DiStefano, the clock isn’t exactly on your side. Yet the majority of the meals his customers eat are made from scratch.

“We have students coming from places as varied as India, Singapore and Cleveland, and they all have their different types of food that remind them of home,” DiStefano says. Students, faculty and staff contribute recipes to the school’s annual Taste of Home cookbook (offered for free to parents), and many of those end up on the menu at UMass’ dining commons.

Still, it’s not always easy to scale up grandma’s six-serving stew recipe to feed thousands during a mobbed dinner rush. So DiStefano’s team makes small batches every 10 to 15 minutes. “Instead of having four or five hotel pans full of product, you’re using the same skillet, and there’s no waste,” he says. For quicker items such as Yard Bean Masala Stir-fry, staffers prepare individual portions to order. And with less waste, DiStefano says he is able to spend less and put the savings towards buying higher-quality ingredients including sustainable seafood, local produce and poultry and grass-fed beef.

Chandler Unified School District Food and Nutrition Director Wesley Delbridge takes a different approach to get fresh, from scratch meals on the trays at more than 40 schools in the Phoenix area. “It’s hard with schools to start literally from scratch, but it’s the perfect setting to do finishing touches,” he says.

Cooks at his schools prepare scratch-made bases for dishes such as beef tacos (flavored with a housemade seasoning blend) or macaroni and cheese at Chandler’s central kitchen. Then they’re delivered to individual schools for cafeteria staff to assemble complete meals on-site, where students can—and love to—watch. This approach also allows for customization. “If your kids love jalapeño mac and cheese, add the jalapeño and bread crumb topping on-site,” Delbridge says.

Delbridge was able to employ a similar tactic by investing in pizza ovens so pies could be baked onsite, and sales skyrocketed. Chandler’s scratch-made dough is proofed and delivered to schools the night before. Individual dough balls get a final slow rise overnight in the refrigerator so they’re ready to go in the morning. Come lunchtime, cafeteria staff assemble the pies and bake them fresh. “It’s the same pizza as before. But the smell and seeing the pizza come out of the oven doubled participation,” Chandler says. 

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This is the first time the district will be providing meals over winter break. The lunch will be served on Dec. 27 and 28 at two sites in the community.

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