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Bon Appétit!




By Selena Fragassi

 

Turns out it is a small world after all. At least when it comes to the vast array of cultural food options that are now available to discerning diners in restaurants and, more than ever, at meetings and events. Gone are the days of homogenous dining where everyone has to eat the same meal that is prepared for the group. We simply don’t live like that anymore—and in today’s world the standard is tailored, custom menus for international visitors abiding by cultural or religious customs, or for guests with restrictive diets based on health needs or moral convictions.

In some ways, colleges and universities have proven to be the most equipped of all for authentic, varied menus. Their day-to-day customer base includes students from around the world that are looking for meals that will continually add variety and also keep with customs and give them a taste of home.

“Many colleges and universities are continually catering to an international resident population, and so our staff has had a significant exposure to menus from around the world,” says Imad Zubi, director of the Willits-Hallowell Conference Center and Hotel at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “In the past we’ve even had students provide us with recipes for ethnic cuisines.”

Zubi’s team has been working with regimented groups for a number of years, recalling one of their most challenging was in hosting the National Yiddish Book Center’s weeklong conference as far back as 2000. “This was before we had kosher catering on campus, but at the time we chose to convert one of our dining hall kitchens to be a kosher operation by providing two sets of serviceware, separate refrigeration for meat and dairy and other standards that were up to code.”

Chris Shields, director of sales and marketing at Northern Arizona’s High Country Conference Center in Flagstaff, recently had a similar experience with a Chabad Jewish Center that was looking to host a 250- person fundraiser dinner. “It was our first time going after this market,” he admits. “In our area, not a lot of other venues will try to get that type of business because they think it’s high-maintenance or not worth their time, but for us, we feel it can expand our clientele and generate revenue.”

To prepare for the group, Shields and his team (operated by Sodexo Conferencing) had to acquire rare spices and meats through specialty vendors as well as kosher

wine. “We had to shut down the entire dining area 24 hours in advance to bus the kitchen and hire a separate cleaning crew to steam clean every pot, pan and piece of silverware,” he says, noting the whole process took about five months and “lots of in-person visits.” The first step was a meeting with the Rabbi and a variety of personnel at the conference center, including the director of food and beverage, the executive chef and general manager, to plan out the occasion and see if it could be done on-site. Next came a meeting to price out the products and services and finally a third visit included the Rabbi’s elder who did a walk through and targeted the step-by-step procedures for the day of the event.

“Once we got the food in place it wasn’t that big of a deal to coordinate,” Shields admits. Having a chef on staff that is of the Jewish faith also helped.

WORLD-CLASS CHEFS AT YOUR SERVICE

Chef backgrounds are of extreme importance at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, one of the first schools to integrate kosher menus in its campus restaurant. Today, though, 75% of the school’s 150 external events also host groups from the Middle East, China and South America, which the college is prepared for given its diverse culinary team. Of the three executive chefs and seven sous chefs, there are individuals from nations as diverse as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Syria, India, China and Cambodia. “The training Sodexo provides us is one thing,” says John Middleton, director of culinary operations, “but there’s nothing that can top a home-made recipe for something like Chicken Pozole soup that makes our cuisine really authentic.”

Muhlenberg prides itself on getting “extreme” to meet guests’ palettes and preferences, says Middleton.

“We’ve gone so far as to build a tandoor oven for one of our Moroccan groups or make okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese pancake not often seen stateside, for a summer Pan-Asian camp.” The real challenge sometimes involves finding the authentic ingredients, but if you look hard enough you can find any kind of market, according to Middleton. “We have Philadelphia at our back door, so I’ll get my staff to go to the authentic markets, talk with the vendors and shop for the particular ingredients and spices we need to bring back to the kitchen.”

If there’s any notion that chefs on campus are run of the mill line cooks, though, think again. “Dining in a college venue is an untapped resource,” says Middleton. “A lot of our chefs have hotel backgrounds and people can sometimes underestimate the quality of the product available. But I would put any of our staff or menus up against anyone, anywhere, and we’d pass the test.”

Looking at the résumés of executive chefs like Jeffrey Viviano at Mount Holyoke College proves his point. Viviano has 25 years of experience with appointments at The Hartford Club, The Griswold Inn in Essex and a number of Hyatt properties in Beverly Hills, New York City and the East Coast. “With his experience at hotels in major cities, Chef Viviano comes with a lot of diversity and great ideas,” says Zubi. “His creative style was honed at properties with great reputations for consistent American cuisine with Mediterranean flavors.”

That exposure comes in handy when the college plans for the annual Arab American Arts Music Institute retreat, a seven-night conference they have hosted for the past 18 years. “All the dinners are completely Middle Eastern-themed and developed in collaboration with Chef Viviano and Najeeb Shaheen, a former restaurateur who is associated with the program. They finalize the menus together and Najeeb also helps us procure the

“Dining in a college venue is an untapped resource. A lot of our chefs have hotel backgrounds and people can sometimes underestimate the quality of the product available.”

products needed from import stores in New York City,” says Zubi.

CATERING TO DIETARY NEEDS

Cultural customs are just one of the ways campuses are accommodating a diversified clientele. Others, like the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, also create specific menus for those with dietary restrictions, such as vegetarians and vegans. For 20 years, the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) has been hosting their annual Vegetarian Summerfest on the campus grounds. Over the course of several days, 750 people convene to attend workshops and meet other likeminded families—and one of the biggest concerns is making sure guests aren’t just eating plates of lettuce.

“The university has been wonderful and accommodating to all of our dietary needs,” affirms Sharon Graff, the executive director of the Society.

“They have helped us not only stay vegan since the very beginning, but have also instituted more particular food items over time for our guests that need gluten-free options or more raw preparations. They are very willing to work with us and always do an incredible job given that we have such a complicated menu.”

To orchestrate the very specific menus, the university allows NAVS to use their kitchen space but with the flexibility that the Society can bring in their own chefs to oversee operations. “We’ve been doing this program with UPJ for so many years that they really understand us and our conference so it runs very smoothly each time,” says Graff, further noting how important the choice of venue has been for their annual summit. “We’ve always preferred to use campus facilities because we find them to be more economical than a traditional hotel; they have great rates and always meet our needs.”

WELL DONE SERVICES UPJ’s

Event Manager Tammy Barbin is quick to say that providing for groups like NAVS has become the norm for her team. “It’s just one more way we cater to our groups and customer service needs,” she says. “But I do think the requests are becoming more refined across the board and catering has had to keep up as a specialty operation more than ever before. Campuses are really equipped to lead the charge in this regard because we have student bodies that demand it.” Every year, Barbin says, there are more and more students from varying countries admitted as undergrads, “and that prepares us for conferences that are just as diverse.”

Cindy Zapata, the office of conference services manager at Iona College in upstate New York, says flexibility is the biggest advantage campuses can provide to a wide range of guests. “We are new to the summer business, this is only our sixth year or so, and therefore we are always willing to take feedback and improve our operations,” she says. In her tenure, the school has hosted an annual Passover/Seder meal, a number of events for the area’s growing Haitian community and a variety of summer camps that play up odd food holidays to keep menus interesting. “Research for us is key as well as asking the clients questions. We are very dedicated to having detailed conversations to make sure we understand preferences and food allergies.”

While prices can increase for these types of services, it’s mostly related to the market price of ordering organic food items for the vegetarian crowds or specialty spices for the more authentic cultural dishes. Shields says for his kosher group, the per-person plate cost was

“We’ve always preferred to use campus facilities because we find them to be more economical than a hotel; they have great rates and always meet our needs.”

$39.95, “and really the extra $5 or $6 was for nothing more than shipping food from other cities if we didn’t have it here.”

Middleton says it’s the same case at Muhlenberg College. “The cost for these catered meals really runs right in line with what our prices already are. Acquiring some ingredients can be expensive, but we try to keep it as cost-effective as possible.” And if all else fails, he says, “Our dining halls also offer very diverse meals and are open to the public so guests can get a taste of home without doing a comprehensive menu if they don’t have the time or budget.”

Although Zubi says he has had to turn away some requests that were not practical for the college for a variety of reasons related to resources or expertise, the two-to-three events with challenging catering requests that the campus does host every year do find certain advantages. “We have the ability to offer the same experience at a lower price point than commercial hotels who might nickel and dime you. We also have advantages, such as having more staff available to work with these specialty menus.”

If colleges and universities have learned anything from these vast experiences, it’s that food is the cornerstone of any great event, and when done well, it brings everyone to the table. “Food opens up conversations,” says Middleton, “and that allows us to sit down with our clients and really get to know them so we can wow them every time.”

 
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