University chefs talk dining halls down to a science

By Thomas Block, Staff Writer

For SooHwa Yu, cooking has always been about people.

After all, Yu couldn’t have guessed the job he had as a 15-year-old would launch a lifelong culinary career. At the time, he was just thinking about his family.

“My family had a restaurant, and as family, I tried to help them out,” Yu said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted a career as a chef, but after doing a lot of different things, I went back there and thought, ‘Service is a good place to go.’”

Yu is now a production chef at the PAR dining hall, one of the many branches of the University’s Dining Services program.

The program is chefs, including Yu, are tasked every day with providing meals to the thousands of students who use the cafeterias on campus.

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Chelsea Hamilton, senior assistant director for communications and marketing within University Housing, makes it clear that this challenge not only demands professional prowess from the chefs but also pushes them to form a dialogue with the people they serve.

“Their science is so diverse,” Hamilton said. “It’s not just the science of operating and managing a kitchen, but it’s also the customer service that they’re able to hone in on and speak with our students about.”

To best respond to students’ nuanced preferences, chefs plan out each weekly forecast, which queues up menu items for the cafeteria to serve based on historically popular dishes.

In addition to predicting what students will want to eat, chefs must plan how much of each product the dining halls will need to purchase from vendors, minimizing the gap between the amount of food bought and the amount consumed.

“We have to figure out what students like most,” Yu said. “Sometimes we produce more, and sometimes not enough. Some of the stuff that we thought would be popular just isn’t with a new generation.”

This change isn’t necessarily unwelcome, however. Yu notes that on average, students have transitioned to healthier dietary options.

About 13 years ago, students dining at ISR consumed about 650 pounds of chicken tenders and 1,000 pounds of fries every lunch period. Since then, according to Yu, those numbers have each shrunk by about 25 percent.

Nevertheless, the University’s chefs wish to anticipate change before it arrives at their doorstep.

As a part of Dining Services’ Text-and-Tell program, students can message the dietitian at their respective dining hall and share either their dietary restrictions or any questions or comments they may have about the food served at their cafeteria.

This way, generating feedback from students is as simple as receiving texts.

Chef Crystol Smith of LAR says the demographics of surrounding residence halls play a major role in determining her menu, which each chef has the freedom to craft themselves.

“We have the Sustainability LLC in our unit, so a lot of the students who live there are very conscious of being sustainable,” Smith said. “I have a lot of vegan and vegetarian students who live and eat at my hall, so my menus are much heavier on those menu items as opposed to having more meat.”

Not only do the chefs accommodate for what their customers can or can’t eat, but they also attempt to resonate with students from various cultural backgrounds in pursuit of an inclusive dining community.

In association with the Asian American Cultural Center, the chefs host the annual Fall International Student Collaboration, an event that takes place over fall break and invites international students to learn how to prepare traditional American recipes.

While Smith has enjoyed teaching attendees how to prepare such dishes as turkey and gravy, she’s even more pleased when the educational tables are turned.

“A lot of times, some of the recipes that are on our menu now are there because a student from that culture or background taught us how to make it,” Smith said.

To honor one’s culture is to also honor the world in which they live, and the University’s chefs have committed to serving the environment just as they have for its students.

Silverfin fish, for example, found its way onto dining hall menus about two years ago as a part of the University’s joint effort with the local government to eradicate the invasive species from Illinois waterways.

The LAR dining hall is even operating a set of Sun Buckets, solar-powered stove tops, that Smith currently uses to cook the kitchen’s stir-fry.

“This is really in the hands of our chefs,” Hamilton said of the chefs’ sustainability mission. “It’s one of those things where we saw a problem and thought, ‘Let’s create a solution.’”

Though most students may only be looking for a good meal, Yu hopes that his work allows people to look past the food on their plates.

“I like working with the passion shared by all the chefs here, as well as engaging with students as a role model to say, “This is what I do, and I’m proud of what I do,” Yu said.

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