Approximately 50,000 strong, the student body at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., represents a diverse range of cultures, and the MSU dining team is making sure that they’re represented on the menu at campus dining locations.
“We have students that may not be specifically from [a certain country], but maybe their family is and maybe they travel there a lot and so, if we're going to put [a dish] on our menu, I want to make sure that we're hitting the mark,” says Senior Executive Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski.
Over the past several years, Kwiatkowski and his team have made efforts to incorporate more culturally authentic dishes onto their menus, especially when it comes to halal items. Here are some best practices they’ve put in place when working with MSU’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) to increase the amount of halal offerings in campus eateries.
The first step to making menus more authentic, Kwiatkowski says, is reaching out to different students on campus, noting that “an email can go a long way.”
Kwiatkowski makes a point to connect with student groups and MSU’s Residence Hall Association to begin the initial conversation on what students would like on the menu.
Reaching out also extends to suppliers. This year, when the MSU dining team was preparing for a special Eid al-Fitr feast, which marks the end of Ramadan, Kwiatkowski decided to visit Shatila Bakery, a Middle Eastern bakery in Detroit that students love, to try their items and see if he could bring some to campus for the celebration.
While operators may think they know what their diners want, the key to menuing authentic dishes is to listen first.
“You have to listen to what your guests really want,” Kwiatkowski says. “It might be easier than what you realize.”
To give Muslim students an easy avenue to leave feedback, his team began hosting monthly meetings with the MSA, during which students and dining staff discuss upcoming events, new menu items and more. Students are also able to give input, positive or negative, on how things are going at different dining locations on campus.
These meetings have been helpful since the MSA has many members who act as eyes and ears all over campus.
“That many eyes out there, it's great,” he says. “It’s great feedback.”
Take the time to train and plan
As the team worked to incorporate halal dishes, chefs worked closely with MSU’s dietician to search for ingredients that fit halal requirements.
“Just because [an item] might have a halal protein, you also have to make sure that there's no alcohol in that dish,” says Kwiatkowski. “You also have to make sure that if we're going to use a base to make a sauce with, it has to be vegetarian, it can't have animal protein in it.”
For MSU’s 2022 Eid al-Fitr celebration last month, the executive chefs created their own menus to play up their strengths as chefs. Since the dining team began planning early on, they were even able to source more expensive ingredients, such as lamb, for the meal.
The team also offered baked goods from Shatila as well as hummus and other items from a local restaurant.
The event was popular with students and faculty, Kwiatkowski says, and planning is underway for a Eid al-Adha celebration to be held on campus over the summer.
Going forward, the dining team will continue to meet with the MSA and other student groups to look for ways to provide a little piece of home when students step into the dining hall.
“We're not looking to be better than [students’] moms or their grandmothers, but we're trying to at least create a positive food memory,” says Kwiatkowski. “And then, when you hit the home run, when you get feedback from them saying, ‘This reminded me of being at home,’ it's powerful.”