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5 takeaways from FSD's college chefs' culinary summit

At a roundtable during the Big 10 Conference Culinary Immersion at Rutgers University, 11 college chefs share current challenges and possible solutions.
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Big 10 chefs shared how they're overcoming current dining challenges during FoodService Director’s Big 10 Conference Culinary Immersion . / Photo courtesy of Winsight Media

Eleven college chefs gathered this week at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. to share best practices, develop recipes together and return to their campuses with fresh ideas and inspiration. They were participants in FoodService Director’s Big 10 Conference Culinary Immersion, an annual event that kicked off Monday with a lively Chefs Roundtable.

During the roundtable, the chefs talked freely about the biggest college dining challenges they’re facing in 2023. Here’s what’s keeping them up at night and how they’re dealing with it.

Students are becoming fussier about Halal certification

At University of Michigan, Muslim students are pushing for higher standards of Halal certification, specifically regarding the hand slaughtering of meat, said Frank Turchan, campus executive chef for Michigan Dining. Students from the Middle East are demanding Halal methods that follow Shariah, based on stricter Islamic guidelines.

“I have to drive to a separate town to pick up Halal chicken, and thighs go for $6.69 a pound compared to $1.69 for regular chicken thighs,” said Turchan.

At University of Minnesota, only Halal certified chicken parts are served; nuggets and tenders are the exceptions. Other Big 10 chefs added that they have designated stations for Halal meals and at Rutgers, students can request a Halal meal ahead of time or at service.

Getting ready for Ramadan

Ramadan begins next Wednesday and runs through April 21, which spurred discussion on how to best handle meal service for observant students. Michigan Dining opens its largest dining hall until 9 p.m. so students can pick up meals at the required time after sundown. It then reopens early enough for breakfast.

At Indiana University, students order meals-to-go ahead of time and pick them up each day to eat in their dorms, said Chef de Cuisine Zachary Kell. Since breakfast is eaten before sunup, foods like hard-cooked eggs and overnight oats make good choices.

University of Nebraska holds events on campus but Executive Chef Wahadi Allen is working on creating Ramadan-specific meals for the college’s c-stores. “Students can register for the number of meals they want each week and use meal swipes to purchase them,” he said.

Ramadan at Rutgers

The trials of takeout

To-go meals have increased in scope and number, bringing on new challenges. University of Minnesota Senior Executive Chef Chuck Gibbons mentioned “double dipping” as a problem. “Students get a takeout box and fill it up, then go through the line and fill up their plates, using just one meal swipe,” he said.

The chefs admit this practice is hard to monitor, but some are trying to station employees in the all-you-care-to eat venues to keep watch.

Takeout packaging is another challenge. University of Iowa tried reusable bowls and containers, but they’re expensive and tend to disappear instead of being returned to the dining hall, said Catering Chef Anne Watson. Plus, students don’t want to walk around with a dirty bowl in their backpack.

At University of Nebraska, students get redeemable Eco Coins if they bring back the container, said Allen.

Waste is primarily a front-of-house issue

There’s more consumption waste than production waste, the chefs agreed. Many use Leanpath, which provides kitchen waste data on a regular basis. Plus, the labor shortage has pushed some college dining programs to use more value-added products.

“We are sourcing pre-cut vegetables, which adds up to much less back-of-house waste, but students continue to waste food,” said Mark Kowalsky, Executive Chef at Penn State University.

And most students are not aware of how much they’re wasting, added Allen. “Maybe we should provide waste data in an app to make them aware,” he said.

Translating waste into future dollar savings—not current savings—may also have an impact, said Kris Solt, Assistant Director of Rutgers Dining Services. The threat of meal plan prices increases may be motivation enough.

Instead of universal all-you-care-to-eat stations, Rutgers has staff portion out more expensive proteins, including scrod, salmon and roast beef. Portion control really helps, “but currently finding labor to provide that level of service is challenging,” said Solt.  

University of Michigan downsized to 9-inch plates in its all-you-care-to-eat dining halls, and proteins are 3-ounce portions, which helps with waste reduction, said Turchan.

And at University of Nebraska, Allen and his team sometimes recover food from catered events and repurpose it into boxed meals for students, he said.

Streamlining menus

Shrinking the menu can also help with waste control. Michigan Dining has two proteins at each station, one meat and one plant-based. That prompted Allen to consider limiting entree choices at University of Nebraska.

“Our stir-fry station has three choices, and that’s probably too many,” he said.

The other chefs agreed that for build-your-own options, two proteins is sufficient, making up the difference with more vegetables, grains and sauces for burritos, bowls, stir-fries, etc.

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