Focus on the food

There is a beginning for all things. For Rafi Taherian, Yale’s new executive director of dining services, that was Stir (or, to undergraduates, the “Ivy Noodle station in Commons”).

But Stir chef Nuanmin Guo’s wontons are only the beginning — the first visible consequence of Taherian’s move to New Haven and the exit of food contractor Aramark. Before the members of the class of 2009 graduate in May, they will drink coffee from mugs bought and handed out for free by Yale University Dining Services, eat healthier carrot cake and — maybe — text message their dining hall manager on the way to soccer practice to ask for take-out meals they can heat up later. These are some of the changes set to debut on campus this year — all part of Taherian’s effort to respond to student input/to generate/drive more interest in dining at Yale.

Rafi Taherian, the executive director of dining services, hopes to launch a service that would allow students to send text messages for meals on the go.
Joseph Breen
Rafi Taherian, the executive director of dining services, hopes to launch a service that would allow students to send text messages for meals on the go.

“People come together around the dinner table,” he said. “We’re trying to support the creation of that nice, comfortable experience for you.”

Taherian’s words reflect a broader vision taking shape at YUDS in the wake of Aramark’s exit: It’s all about the food.

And that, according to YUDS officials, is a change. For the last decade, food-service provider Aramark ran Yale’s dining halls with an eye toward efficiency and meeting its contractual obligations with the University. Creativity was not a buzzword.

“All the pieces existed when Aramark was here, and we did not see a Stir station in Commons,” explained Ernst Huff, associate vice president for student financial and administrative services. “It’s just a matter of creativity. We needed someone with Rafi’s experience and expertise to influence the quality of food.”

The University decided in June 2007 to abandon its relationship with Philadelphia-based conglomerate and food-services provider Aramark. Administrators said they made the move to an in-house system for YUDS because of the University’s growing self-sufficiency, but local union leaders indicated at the time that YUDS may have abandoned Aramark because of the company’s cost-cutting, sometimes at the expense of quality and student satisfaction.

By all accounts, Taherian has taken New Haven by storm. Yale College Council officials, who are working with him on a number of dining-related initiatives, commended him. YUDS higher-ups said his indefatigable energy has changed the playing field with regards to what is and is not possible.

For students, that means change they can see — and taste.

The take-out option, for instance, is back on the table. Dining hall managers are working with students and YUDS officials to set up a program that would allow students to text message their dining halls if running late, pick up a reusable container of hot food upon their arrival and drop off the container for cleaning the next morning.

Taherian said YUDS is seriously considering the change, although no implementation date has been set, and Taherian said he is working with a manufacturer to customize a suitable container for the take-out program.

October will see the first-ever “Iron Chef” competition between colleges. One representative from each college will whip up his or her greatest culinary creation using a special ingredient and equipment provided by Commons. The winner gets a week at a culinary school — and the pleasure of teaching YUDS how to make the winning dish (it will go on the campuswide menu at least once).

Around that time — exact dates are still in flux — all students on the meal plan will receive a stainless-steel coffee mug, approved by the Yale Office of Sustainability and by Associate University Librarian Danuta Nitecki for use in the stacks.

It’s a play to sustainability: If students carry the mug everywhere, fewer paper cups wind up in trash bins and fewer YUDS dollars are spent buying more (although YUDS will shell out over $25,000 to purchase over 7,000 mugs).

In the background, YUDS chefs are working on a “stealth health” campaign, in which recipes are revisited and tweaked to help students eat better without knowing it, said Karen Dougherty, YUDS’s nutrition, information and wellness program director.

Just which recipes are getting a make-over is a YUDS secret — they’re worried that students will avoid foods marked “healthy” — although YUDS Culinary Resource Center Director Thomas Peterlik volunteered that the carrot cake on the line this year has 15 percent less fat. Oil was replaced with fresh pumpkin, which preserves the moistness and adds a natural flavor, he said.

But Dougherty and Peterlik emphasized that students’ favorite comfort foods will still be around. Dougherty pointed out that pizza will stay on the menu, even though it’s not one of the dining halls’ healthiest offerings.

“There is nothing low-sodium about a slice of pizza,” she said. “Does that mean we’re going to stop serving it? No.”

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