“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
– Virginia Woolf
On Thurs., Feb. 23, I ate dinner in Jonathan Edwards College. The first feature of the night’s meal was served before I even entered the kitchen area. Two cooks, lined up behind portable stoves, were preparing samples of an experimental new dish: teriyaki jackfruit. While ripe jackfruit is sweet, unripe—also called young—jackfruit is savory. It is a staple in some South Asian cuisines, and has been trending in the West as a desirable meat alternative for its semi-plausible mimicry on top of its high-protein yield. Served atop warm white rice, marinated with a tangy-sweet glaze alongside peppers and onions, the jackfruit arils (the ovoid petals inside the fruit) took on a fleshy consistency and picked up the flavor of the marinade; my fork tore it apart like pulled pork, and my teeth did the same. The dish was flavorful yet simple, familiar yet utterly alien; I had four servings. What was this exotic fruit doing in a Yale dining hall?
Of the many changes rosy-cheeked frosh face as they step on campus, adjusting to the dining hall lifestyle can be one of the most profound. Thrust from the comfort of home-cooked meals and the neighborhood pizza joint, the most of their meals in college will be prepared en masse, served in communal trays rather than on mom’s china. It’s one thing to pick a cereal out of your pantry, but another to funnel one of the dining hall’s available cereals into your bowl without spilling. In abstraction, the dining hall should exhilarate those among us who salivate over all-you-can-eats—the endless tater tots were the best part of my week at UCLA tennis camp back in the sixth grade. But in reality, the dining hall is often a source of consternation for some and irritation for others. Regardless, Yale Dining is omnipresent in undergraduate life, and yet we don’t seem to think about it beyond complaining about the wait until chicken tender Thursday (or, if you’re like me, Kale Feta Ball Friday).
Yale Dining does not exist to “feed us,” I learned, when I spoke with its director, Adam Millman. He was quick to point out that Yale Dining’s mission does not include my crude formulation; instead, Yale Dining strives to “nourish a culture in which the interwoven pleasures of growing, cooking, and sharing food become an integral part of each student’s experience at Yale.” It seems that they would agree that dining well is imperative, and that one can dine well only if one’s meal is prepared well. But more and more, dining well also involves consuming healthy, locally-sourced, and sustainable food. And yet the typical Yalie might not be interested in growing, cooking, and sharing food, per se; they, rather, will be concerned more with eating, and liking, what’s made it to their plate.
So, like any good American Studies major, I wanted to problematize Yale Dining as a paragon of institutional sustainability and culinary excellence. This desire arose in part because bad-mouthing the dining hall seems to be an inescapable trope of the college experience, but also because their self-aggrandizement—the way they thrust their eco-friendliness and gustatory achievement in our faces—can be jarring. We may not be able to choose exactly what we want to eat when we want to eat it, but at least we can sate the home-sized hole in our stomachs with the knowledge that our food is sustainable, right?
Yale Dining’s menus, which rotate every four weeks, are developed and curated by Ron DeSantis, the Director of Culinary Excellence, one of 64 Certified Master Chefs in the world—an impressive distinction that Yale Dining will never let you forget, as they append that dignifying appositive to his title whenever it has occasion to appear. At brunch, they don’t serve applewood-smoked bacon, but nitrate-free applewood-smoked bacon. Outside Commons is a stand with four posters on it: one is the day’s menu, and the other three advertise, in bold typeface larger than the one that lists the dishes, that Yale Dining is “committed to sustainability,” and to composting, and that 80 percent of their entrées, sides, and desserts are vegetarian (meatless desserts!). To parse Yale Dining’s website and press releases is to wade through a bog of buzzwords that sound nice, but fail to cohere into anything meaningful upon a second glance.
The thing is, both culinary excellence and sustainability come under fire when they fade into the commonplace. Yale Dining pledges, among other things, to provide “delicious, chef-centric food,” and promote “food literacy.” These are both worthy initiatives. It’s just that, for some reason, students don’t expect to actually dine well in their own dining halls. It seems that the extent of Yale Dining’s efforts—and their singularity—actually fly by under our noses.
Food at Yale is multifaceted, but hardly ineffable. For those who are interested in cooking and sharing food, the student pop-up scene is one vibrant outlet, while food education is becoming more and more entrenched in Yale’s academic and entrepreneurial spheres. Making food and learning about food are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but at Yale they are split into different bodies. Michael Park, ES ’17, is the CEO of Y Pop-Up, a group whose foremost purpose is to “create a great community among people that enjoy cooking.” The entirely student-run Y Pop-Up opens several “restaurants” each semester, serving tasting menus with rotating themes, always at a price under $20. Here is where “talented people on campus” have “a chance to hone their craft, learn something, and have, more importantly, a platform to share their visions with friends, professors, people in the community,” Park says. And they certainly draw a crowd.
Y Pop-Up’s most recent event was this past Fri., March 3, and was fully booked. I dropped in to observe the ambience: diners were scattered throughout the Grace Hopper Buttery, sitting at round tables draped in black tablecloths, at square wooden tables left bare, and even at the bar in front of the cooks. Waiters dressed in sweaters cycled through the tables among the soft murmur of contented dinner conversation. The rich scent of the main course—lamb dinner, accompanied by pomegranate molasses, horseradish cauliflower purée, and marinated fingerling potatoes—wafted through the cracks of the door to the buttery. The four course meal was priced at $18. This was nothing like my dining hall dinner. Park was busy: wearing a blue-and-white striped apron, he shuttled back and forth between the kitchen and the diners, supervising the preparations and gauging the food’s reception.
Earlier this week, Park told me that he’s just grateful that “people are interested enough to fill the restaurant every week.” Though, from a “superficial” perspective, Yale Dining might seem to be antithetical to Y Pop-Up—monolithic instead of “kind of niche”—he aspires to Yale Dining’s degree of discipline and functionality.
The first thing to understand about Yale Dining is the sheer breadth of its operations. Yale Dining is but one of Yale Hospitality’s branches, which also include a high-end catering service and commercial retail operations like Durfee’s and KBT Café. All in all, Yale Hospitality employs more than 750 people: roughly 400 culinary and service employees, 190 banquet servers, 120 casual servers, and 60 managerial and administrative staff.
Onyeka Obiocha is a Social Entrepreneurship Fellow across the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY) and InnovateHealth Yale, a program out of the School of Public Health. He’s gotten “pretty intimate with a lot of food entrepreneurs and the way food works at Yale,” and has strategized with Park about growing his “little corner”; in terms of scale, Obiocha likens Yale Dining to Walmart. But, in striving to put good food on people’s plates, Y Pop-Up and Yale Dining share more than one might think: “When you’re a part of what you perceive to be a common project, you always empathize with how difficult the job is,” Park says. “In terms of what they do from a food standpoint, I can’t imagine…” He trails off. Park is friends with DeSantis, and with some dining hall managers and cooks: “They would tell me war stories of Morse/Stiles dinner rush on a Thursday night, where they’re serving 1,000. That’s incomprehensible to me. At Pop-Up—though we’re plating everything and there are multiple courses, so timing is an issue—we’re serving 50 people. And they’re serving literally 20 times that volume, it’s unbelievable.” Through dining halls alone, Yale Dining serves 14,000 meals a day. “At that point, it boils down to professionalism and really good teaching.”
“No matter how well a dining hall is run, it’s never going to be home cooking, or eating at a restaurant, and it’s not meant to be,” Park adds. “But I think there’s definitely an element of misunderstanding in terms of the amount that people care. I think there’s a lot of pride in what goes on, and attention should be paid to that.”
Though I gorged on jackfruit in JE, my home base, where I eat nine meals out of 10, is Berkeley. The Berkeley dining hall employs 28, including cooks (split into first, second, and third lines), pantry workers, dishwashers, and two managers, one of whom is Monica Gallegos. Gallegos sees the dining hall not as a Walmart, but as her home. Though the Berkeley dining hall soon became a home to me as well (once I got over the taxidermy buck heads presiding over the common room), its kitchen remained foreign; the grill forms a barrier that keeps staff and students on opposite sides of the operation.
On Tuesday, between lunch and dinner, Millman led me through Berkeley’s kitchen. The first revelatory detail was that the kitchen is actually two connected parts: The first extends behind the grill, where, hidden from view, is a second cooking area in which dishes are finished (Yale Dining does not batch cook and keep food in “hot boxes” until needed—everything is served fresh). Next is a dish cleaning area—the domain of the “hardest working” employees, according to Millman—and a walk-in refrigerator, where the day’s perishables are stored and dated. The second section sprawls a floor below the dining hall, where prep cooks, well, prep cold dishes and cook hot bulk items. This part of the kitchen also includes a larger walk-in and the dry storage section, whose label system blurs the line between organization and obsessive compulsive disorder. Down here is where the “engine is running,” as Millman calls it, that prepares the food for the “guests,” in Yale Dining parlance, who eat at Berkeley daily. Everything is pristine. Metallic washbasins reflect light off chrome ovens and stainless steel tables. This is the “degree of professionalism” that Park alluded to, without which “creativity can’t shine.”
I asked Millman about the motivation behind the jackfruit. He attributed its appearance in the dining hall to their mission to “keep looking for products, recipes, and experiences that are in line with our sustainability, health, and wellness initiatives.” For me, at least, one buzzword took form here: eating the jackfruit was firmly within my definition of an experience. Gallegos told me that Yale Dining first introduced jackfruit at a training session for dining hall cooks over winter break. Though they attempted a different recipe at first, the vegan tree fruit’s potential as a “diverse and exciting protein alternative” was clear: “We knew we needed to showcase this dish in the dining halls,” Millman said.
“Showcase” seems to be a telling verb. If students turn to peers like Park for culinary acrobatics—even when those peers strive to emulate Yale Dining—what is Yale Dining to do? While taste is insurmountably personal, there’s another important aspect to food in 2017 that is more objective. In their biannual surveys, Yale Dining includes some pointed questions that are more rhetorical than inquisitive: “Are you aware that Yale Dining serves local/regional produce (seasonally available); hormone and antibiotic-free (ABF), responsibly-raised, veg-fed poultry and pork; grass-fed grass finished, ABF beef and lamb; over 50% of all purchases are sustainable; our salads and salad dressing are made daily on campus; and we serve sustainable seafood meeting that is MSC certified and or meets the Monterey Bay Aquarium “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” standards?” is a recent example. I bubbled the option that read “Most of These,” but mostly out of prickly spite. Again in theory, I understood that Yale Dining made efforts at sustainability, but had little notion of what that meant in practice.
In 2010, then-president Richard Levin issued a three-year sustainability plan for the entire university. President Salovey renewed and updated it in 2013, and in 2016, laid out a vision arching through 2025. He tasked Yale Dining to “establish long-term goals and objectives that integrate and align with research, student experience, and operational execution in seamless and aspirational ways.” In more specific terms, that looks like efforts to increase Yale Dining’s “sustainable sourcing footprint” and integrate “health and wellness as a symbiotic aspect of sustainability.” When bombarded with what, to me (a layman when it comes to food systems) reverts back to wonderful, impalpable fluff, it becomes tempting to ascribe Yale Dining’s sustainability initiatives to the cultural moment—one which will soon be dominated by a generation that, as Obiocha observes, is liable to bring a “reusable spork” to college. He sees Yale Dining, and Yale more broadly, directly responding to what the millennial generation wants to see in the institution. This is true of many institutions that, “because they’re so big, usually react. Yale Dining is just reacting, the market is saying we want to be sustainable, we want to be local, we want to be healthy.”
That’s what I thought, too. But Millman vehemently disagrees: “Everybody is concerned about sustainability,” but “we don’t do it because [everybody is] concerned, we do it because of our fundamental beliefs. We’re not basing our stuff off of student wants; we’re basing it off of what’s good for the environment, what’s good for the university, and what’s good for the program.” Those fundamental beliefs have trickled down through the chain of command: Gallegos, of her own initiative, has decided to nix the rainbow sprinkles from Berkeley’s offerings in order to reduce artificial flavoring and be more natural. Attached to the ovens of the second line of Berkeley’s kitchen is a machine called a variable speed controller. This device—which I would have passed over had Millman not pointed it out to me—regulates the speed of the industrial ovens’ cooling fans when unneeded. No students see it, but it quietly reduces Yale’s environmental footprint, however marginally. “Our focus, our core has been the same,” Millman declares.
But Yale Dining is far from the only program at Yale engaged with sustainability. The university’s Office of Sustainability opened its doors in 2005, but the Yale Sustainable Food Program (YSFP) preceded it by four years. The YSFP’s inaugural mission was to “reform the way that Yale supplied food to its dining halls,” says Anna Lipin, ES ’18, who is the YSFP’s Communications Manager. And “it succeeded in many ways”: their first experiment was in the dining halls—specifically in Berkeley. In 2001, in collaboration with legendary chef Alice Waters, they launched a pilot program to begin serving some seasonal and sustainable foods in Berkeley. Students flocked to its doors to partake in the new cuisine and organic salad bar. The program’s immediate popularity, and, more importantly, feasibility, garnered national press, and cemented the YSFP’s presence on campus, paving the way for expanded and more extensive sustainability efforts. An inflection point in the wave came in 2007, when Yale Dining assumed its current form and took over meal planning and sustainable food sourcing. Rafi Taherian, Associate Vice President of Yale Hospitality, has helmed Yale Dining since then as the YSFP evolved and diverged. “The YSFP is no longer focused on Yale food, but on thinking about food systems,” Lipin says. The distinct roles of the two programs—Yale Dining is a “student-faced organization for dining,” as Millman puts it, while the YSFP seeks to grow “food-literate leaders”—seems to place them on parallel paths. But for those of us who are not steeped in Yale food-literacy lore, it might seem perplexing that the YSFP doesn’t advise Yale Dining on its daily operations, or that Yale Dining doesn’t borrow more YSFP practices, especially when your “next-door neighbor is doing things the right way,” as Obiocha puts it.
Mark Bomford, Director of the YSFP, is just that neighbor, and the person who can best evaluate Yale Hospitality’s comprehensive success. He thinks that they run “the most forward-thinking food service operation to be found among any of Yale’s peer institutions… They are viewed as being a step ahead of the rest in the industry.” Furthermore, Bomford isn’t convinced that there is a fundamental difference between Yale Dining’s philosophy and his program’s. The key similarity is that both embrace “sustainability as an active journey, not [as] a fixed destination.” Even Yale Dining’s “foodie” events—a label to which Lipin takes umbrage, asserting that nobody who “thinks about food critically” would want to be called a “foodie” given the basic, Instagram-centric connotation the term has acquired—serve to illustrate how differences can be leveraged productively. The highest profile of these was October’s “Food Conversations,” the inaugural event at the Schwarzman Center, which brought renowned chefs to Yale to publically discuss contemporary food issues; the production mirrored the MAD Yale Leadership Summit, co-organized by Bomford in June, which similarly assembled a panel of world-class chefs to campus. Bomford distinguishes the two events by their different, but complementary, audiences and objectives: the former was public, and engendered “dialogue in the public sphere”; the latter was “more of a focused learning effort” with a long-term scope. The events’ natures reveal just where the two organizations diverge.
Still, Obiocha wants to see more explicit collaboration between sovereign departments and centers across Yale—he likens them all to “fiefdoms,” reluctant to interact. He points to Monday’s Worn Wear College Tour event as an example of a successful collaboration: Patagonia’s worn wear repair team came to Ingalls Rink on behalf of the Office of Sustainability, CBEY, and the Post-Landfill Action Network, a startup that educates students across colleges on zero-waste initiatives. The theme was keeping clothes out of the waste stream; beyond free repairs, the organizers orchestrated a panel discussion with industry leaders to further foster reuse culture on campus. Is this an area where Yale Dining, in particular, can improve? Obiocha wonders what a holistic effort to make “food as cool as possible at Yale” would look like. But 14,000 meals a day restricts the opportunities to source produce from the Yale Farm, for example. “We each have a different focus on campus,” Millman says.
That much is clear. So why is it so easy to lambast Yale Dining? It might be because, even though they present themselves as the gold standard, we don’t really have an alternative. Better questions, I think, are why it’s so difficult for us to accept that Yale Dining is in fact at the forefront of its peers, and why we students don’t celebrate them for, in Bomford’s words, treating “sustainable dining as the rule rather than the exception.” Perhaps it’s because the extent of their excellence lies behind the scenes, no matter how earnestly they try to show it off, or because it’s impossible for those of us who eat in the dining halls daily to conceive of the extent of Yale Dining’s impact. In 2016, Taherian received both the Gold Plate from the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association—recognizing the year’s top foodservice executive, which is rarely a noncommercial operator—and the Elm-Ivy Award—given to exemplary “town and gown” citizens, and to Taherian for supporting local businesses through Yale Hospitality’s purchases. If others already recognize Yale Dining as an exemplar, what will it take for students to do the same?
Another new addition to the dining halls—and this one is to the regular rotation—is cape shark. Much maligned in its short lifespan as a Yale entrée so far, what most don’t know is that cape shark is an inherently sustainable and important product. Yale purchases cape shark—along with cod, halibut, haddock, and skate wings—from a single fishing program based out of Cape Cod. Cape shark is generally bycatch—unwanted fish caught collaterally by commercial fishermen—that is usually discarded, generating both food waste and financial strain. Yale Dining has instead been bringing in cape shark, and, in the process, helping sustain the fishermen’s income while encouraging further cape shark fishing—itself a critical ripple effect, as cape shark is an overabundant predatory species that, when left unchecked, threatens the balance of its ecosystem. Complicating this environmentally-congenial practice is the fact that cape shark is a “meatier fish,” with a “fisher taste,” according to Millman. “We try to balance initiatives, and sometimes we can’t produce stuff that everybody likes.… I think we’re getting mixed reviews; some people like it, some don’t. But some people don’t like fishy fish.”
The reasons why Yale Dining procures cape shark overlap with its selection principles for peppers and tomatoes: “Our tomatoes don’t need to be perfectly red and unblemished, or perfectly symmetrical. They can be deformed because we’re taking them and cooking them. Supermarkets buy for color, size, and shape. We’re buying for flavor.” Most restaurants pass on a product like cape shark, which is relatively unknown outside the Northeast (and whose name can, frankly, turn off less adventurous eaters), but Yale Dining, with an eye on food waste even before any food reaches its domain, and an eye on the food chain, works to bring “underutilized products [into the] mainstream” and make “them taste delicious.”
It’s hard to overestimate Yale Dining’s buying power. According to Obiocha, based on their market share alone, Yale Dining has the ability “to move the dial” to promote “healthy living and healthy eating,” both inside and outside the Yale community. An example comes in the shape of a hot dog: Yale leveraged the volume of its guaranteed purchases to push its hot dog supplier, Hummel Bros, to begin producing a nitrate-free wiener. When Yale began buying bread from Whole G, a New Haven artisan bakery, the company upgraded from fledgling to expanding, exemplifying the symbiosis possible between a large-scale food operation and the areas surrounding it.
Herein lies the complexity of critiquing the practices of a Yale Dining: on the one hand, their efforts to act sustainably have clearly been felt by local businesses, and they’re also reflected on the page: last year, besides sourcing over 25 percent of its food purchases regionally, Yale Dining reduced its beef purchases by 13 percent—and saved roughly 38 million gallons of water in doing so. A line deep in Yale Hospitality’s website seems to anticipate one angle of criticism: “Yale’s commitment to sustainability is more than just a fancy marketing phrase—it’s a commitment and a cultural value.” It just takes a little more than Yale Dining’s word to reveal the brilliant work that they do, because, on the other hand, not everybody likes fishy fish.
To students: Your opinion matters! Yale Dining pays attention to what students like and what they don’t like. Answer surveys and submit feedback forms online.
To Yale Dining: Please keep the Boola Bowls coming back to Berkeley!
I barely covered the tip of the sustainability iceberg (or culinary iceberg, for that matter). Yale Dining, the YSFP, and others are doing so much more at Yale than what is included in this piece. Learn more here, here, and here.