Here’s a very short list of things that inspire Dawn Aubrey: triple-point chemistry, the founding fathers, black currants, invasive species, international cuisine, pickles, and her own staff and students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These topics and more came up during a recent day-long visit with the associate director of dining services for the Champaign, Ill., university, picking her brain and watching her in action.
1. How are you inspired by those around you?
“As dining professionals, we cannot assume that what tastes good to us tastes good to [students],” Aubrey says, adding that there is an unprecedented number of supertasters represented by Generation Z. As such, taste tests have proven more important than ever. Gen Z also has a 50% shorter attention span than millennials. Students aren’t sitting through a football game anymore, she says, but when Aubrey brings them together to make a meal, it’s totally successful. “By and large, food is an experience rather than fuel,” she says. “[Gen Z students] have to identify with it.”
2. What are some of your favorite books for stealable ideas?
While she calls the book “disjointed” and “thrown together,” her love of the founding fathers made “The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine” by Dave DeWitt a natural fit for Aubrey. From the history of how pork came to the Colonies to Thomas Jefferson’s attempts to grow olives in South Carolina, the book made Aubrey realize that “we’re now experiencing a [food] revolution where we’re going back. The old is new again.”
3. Where else do you steal your ideas?
“I find that I tend to splice ideas. I get them from multiple places and smash them together,” Aubrey says. She points to chef and cookbook author Ina Garten, as well as chef Jehangir Mehta of New York City restaurants Graffiti and Me and You, as an example: Combining Garten’s philosophies of simple, fresh, French-meets-Mediterranean cuisine with Mehta’s East Indian and Asian style could produce dishes like a northern Indian curry with Nepalese spices, prepared with the same techniques as a French sauce, and served with a charred meat skewer. “To me, that’s the perfect fusion,” she says.