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Eating at Yale has changed. Drastically.

Think bibimbap and jerk chicken skewers, not salisbury steak with brown sauce.

Melinda Beck ’77, a longtime Wall Street Journal editor and columnist, is a freelance writer in New York City.

Alumni who remember Salisbury steak with brown sauce might not recognize Yale dining today.

The cafeteria steam tables have been replaced with “action stations,” where chefs in white coats prepare dishes such as Kogi Beef Tacos and Jerk Chicken Skewers with Mango Drizzle in front of waiting students. The introduction of spa water, infused with fruit slices and prominently displayed in glass canisters, has brought soda consumption down. Trays are gone. Students carry individual dishes to their seats, which cuts down on food waste. All meals include at least two vegan or vegetarian entrees, with dishes like Tofu with Chimichurri Sauce, Parsley, Cilantro, Garlic, and Shallots. Every item is labeled with all its ingredients and with its fat, calorie, carbohydrate, and protein content, as well as any potential allergens.

This fall, the new dining halls at Franklin and Murray Colleges are debuting nightly Global Comfort-Food Stations, with offerings such as Moules Frites and Sauerbraten (“Tastes of Europe”), along with West Coast Cioppino and Cajun Sausage Gumbo (“American Bounty”). As part of the new “Souper Bowl” offerings, Ramen noodles will alternate with Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish that students can individualize with their choice of vegetables, beef, or chicken and more than a dozen sauces, spices, and toppings. “Part of our mission is to educate Yale students about eating,” says Chase Sobelman, a former executive chef at Goldman Sachs hired to direct culinary operations for the new colleges. “Now, when they visit these countries, they’ll be familiar with these dishes.”

The guiding force behind many of these innovations is Rafi Taherian, an Iranian-born, classically trained chef who was executive director of Stanford Dining when Yale recruited him to revamp its dining operations in 2008. At the time, Taherian’s main charge was to bring Yale’s food services back under the university’s auspices after ten years of being outsourced to Aramark, the Philadelphia-based conglomerate that also supplies food to hospitals, national parks, prisons, and sports stadiums.

Now, nine years later, Taherian has not only brought Yale Hospitality “back in blue,” but made its food far healthier, more plant-based, more sustainable, more locally sourced, and more culturally diverse—all on the scale needed to serve a large institution. With the two new colleges, Yale dining now serves 14,000 meals a day in 16 residential dining halls and 17 retail outlets. The campus is also brimming with cooking contests, food forums, visiting chefs, and pop-up restaurants. A farmers’ market, called Uncommon Market, sprouts up on Beinecke Plaza on summertime Fridays. Durfee’s, no longer just a sweet shop, now sells grab-and-go items, including empanadas, samosas, and dried squid. “Rafi ushered in this new era of creativity, nutrition-consciousness, and sustainability,” says President Peter Salovey ’86PhD. Salovey himself frequently serves as a judge at Final Cut, an Iron Chef-like cooking competition that pits undergrad chefs from each residential college against each other every year.

The food industry has taken note as well. Last year, Taherian, now associate vice president for Yale Hospitality, won the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association’s Silver Plate award for leading the best food operation at any college or university—as well as the Gold Plate award for the highest achievement in any category. He was also recognized with an Elm-Ivy award for supporting New Haven food businesses and sustaining local soup kitchens with Yale leftovers.

And Taherian’s efforts to raise the level of Yale’s culinary awareness have won high marks from students. The most recent survey from the Consortium on Financing Higher Education found that 91 percent of Yale students are satisfied or extremely satisfied with their dining experience, well above the mean for colleges of all kinds. “We get e-mails from students saying, ‘More roasted cauliflower!’ That’s the last thing I expected,” says Ron DeSantis, the certified master chef Taherian brought in as director of culinary excellence.

With more opportunity to be creative, dining hall chefs are happier too. “Now we’re out front, engaging with students instead of being in the back, cooking,” says Vince Gustavson, the number two chef at Berkeley, whose kitchen was renovated this year. “I’ve had chefs come in who were trained at other colleges, and they’re amazed at what we have to work with at Yale.”

To be sure, Yale’s food has long won high marks, and the push to make it more sustainable predated Taherian. A small group of students began pressing for more organic foods in the late 1990s. Then, in 2001, Alice Waters—the renowned chef, restaurateur, and food activist—saw what her freshman daughter was being served to eat and joined the effort to raise Yale’s food consciousness. (“My mom screamed,” her daughter, Fanny Singer, told Food and Wine magazine.) In 2003, with Waters’s help, the newly created Yale Sustainable Food Project launched a pilot program serving only seasonal and sustainable food in Berkeley College. It proved so popular that Berkeley limited transfers from other colleges; some students even created fake IDs to sneak in. In response to the student demand, the YSFP started offering some organic foods in the other residential colleges as well, backed by private donations.

By all accounts, that experience emboldened Yale to let its contract with Aramark lapse in 2008 and seek out a new dining chief with experience in sustainable food to carry it further. Taherian, who had led Stanford’s transition to a “green” dining operation, says he applauded many of the steps the YSFP had taken. But he found that some efforts to be strictly local and organic were too costly to continue in that format—particularly after the 2008 recession—and too limited in reach. “It didn’t make sense for us to buy organic lettuce grown in a greenhouse under the snow in Guilford for $14 a pound,” Taherian says. He also decided it was more important to serve antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken in all the dining halls than to serve expensive organic chicken in just one.

 

Sustainability has many different definitions. As Taherian defines it, it encompasses food that is local or regionally sourced and produced in ways that support “environmental and food-system resiliencies,” using fair labor practices and humane treatment of animals. More than 40 percent of all Yale purchases now meet one or more of those criteria. All animal proteins are antibiotic- and hormone-free, all the eggs are cage-free, and all the beef is grass-fed and grass-finished. Some 80 percent of the menu offerings are vegetarian or vegan—including many of the pastries made at the Yale Bakery.

Cooking sustainably and sourcing locally can sometimes be at odds. Taherian says Yale uses local sources as much as possible, but has to go far afield for some things—in part because the growing season in Connecticut is just 120 days, compared with 365 in California. The salmon is wild-caught from Alaska. The grass-fed beef is from Australia. “The pasture-raised product can have less of a carbon impact and cost less than buying it in the US,” says Gerry Remer, director of Supply Chain and Sustainability. She’s also resorted to buying some infrequently used ingredients, such as the Indian spice garam masala, on Amazon.

Yale has adjusted its menu to serve more seasonal foods. Rather than schedule fish entrees months in advance and buy them frozen, DeSantis instituted a Catch of the Day offering. “We talk to local fishermen and see what they’re hauling in,” he says. And the university works with local food suppliers: Lamberti’s, a family business on Long Wharf, makes Yale’s chicken-and-sage sausage; Hummel Bros. produces its nitrate-free hotdogs. Working with Yale has also helped tiny Whole G Bakery to expand from 6 employees to 25. “They even worked with us to make sure their bread loafs were the right length of fit into our drawers,” Remer says.

To keep costs down, Taherian has looked for efficiencies wherever possible, such as consolidating cold-food preparation in one location—the Yale Culinary Support Center on Winchester Avenue—rather than having it done in each separate college kitchen. And rather than having dozens of small trucks deliver goods to campus, he contracted with one “broadline” distributor, USFoods, and one produce company, FreshPoint. “We can’t work with 100 individual farms, but FreshPoint can and make sure they operate to our standards,” says Remer.

 

Taherian says he recognized early on that each of Yale’s dining halls and cafeterias plays an important role in uniting students from many different backgrounds into a small society. Many universities run large-scale operations that serve thousands of meals in a single location; they’re highly efficient, he points out, but “it’s very hard to find your friends.” To “support building of community,” he says, Yale aims for more-intimate dining. Indeed, Taherian sees his role as making memorable experiences with food—even while serving more fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins and less meat. “We don’t want to tell anybody what to eat,” he says. “We want to seduce them with new flavors and untried ingredients.”

To that end, while Yale has cut the sodium content of its offerings by 37 percent, it has upped the use of herbs and spices to add flavor. “Last year, we added star anise to everything,” says Taherian. He’s particularly proud of Yale’s Blended Burger, which is 60 percent beef and 40 percent mushroom duxelles—a mix of mushrooms that enhances umami, the rich, savory mouthfeel that characterizes meat. And because these burgers use less beef, Yale can afford to buy a higher-quality beef. Others in the industry are following suit, Taherian says. “Even Sonic came out with a blended beef and mushroom burger.”

In a search for new plant-based proteins, Yale has brought in quantities of foods like sea kelp and Caribbean jackfruit. The dining-hall chefs get creative with the new materials, and then give away samples on Cross Campus to see how students respond. The promotion called “You Don’t Know Jack . . .” included Teriyaki Jackfruit on Jasmine Rice with Scallions and Sesame Seeds. That dish joins the menu this year.

One dish has developed a cult following. Taherian replaced the frozen, precooked chicken tenders Aramark had served with a fresh version, marinated in buttermilk, breaded with seasonings, and fried in oil while students wait. Their popularity soared. In fall 2014, when Yale dining reduced their availability from once every week to once every two weeks, Buttermilk Chicken Tenders even earned their own website, where students could sign up to receive alerts so they wouldn’t miss Chicken Tenders day. The president of the Yale College Council, Michael Herbert ’16, tried to persuade Yale dining to make them weekly again. But Taherian held firm, insisting that university data showed the tenders reached maximum popularity when served biweekly. (Herbert, who is now an ensign in the US Navy, says he wishes he could still eat three Yale meals a day.)

Another dish became the butt of campus jokes last year. Hanoi Fried Cape Shark was immortalized in Facebook memes, Halloween costumes, and laugh lines in graduation speeches. Cape Shark is an abundant, lean, white fish once considered of low value but recently discovered by chefs interested in sustainability. Charles Comiter ’20, cofounder of a Facebook page featuring Yale memes, explains that Cape Shark symbolized what some students saw as Yale dining’s overzealous attempts to serve cutting-edge fare: “People saw it on the menu and said, ‘Ok, this is beyond silly.’” (Many premier college dining halls in the Northeast serve it, according to Taherian.)

Some students also have a beef with the cost of Yale food: $3,400 per semester for a full meal plan, which is required of all first-year undergrads. More than half of all upperclassmen now live off campus, and many cite saving money on food as a key reason. Yale has introduced more-flexible options for off-campus students. But the 14-meal-a-week plan costs the same as a full meal plan, although it offers more bonus meals and credits to use at Yale retail outlets. “Our food costs are pretty much in line with other universities, and we help offset those costs for students, with aggressive financial aid,” Salovey says. Taherian concedes that eating off campus can be less expensive, but he says that Yale’s system is “mission- and service-driven.” (He also notes that many of the colleges invite their off-campus members to dinner in the dining hall for free on Sunday night.)

In the year ahead, Taherian says, Yale Hospitality will focus on rolling out new dishes in the new kitchen shared by Franklin and Murray Colleges, as well as in Berkeley’s kitchen, which was recently renovated. With Commons now closed for renovations, Yale dining is also brainstorming alternatives to it. One idea under discussion: a food truck to be stationed in front of Beinecke Plaza.

And Cape Shark? “We will continue to use sustainable seafood, including Cape Shark,” says Taherian. “But it may not be Hanoi style.”

1 comment

  • Jeff Trombetta
    Jeff Trombetta, 1:01pm September 03 2017 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This is a terrific article and a great dining plan that has evolved with true direction with regard to dietary health, diversity, vegetarian, sustainability and general wholesomeness in dining serice. Congratulations and keep up the good work.

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