Chefs protest menu decisions

When Frank Douglass Jr., a second cook in Trumbull College’s kitchen, went to prepare the picadillo de pavo for Wednesday night’s dinner, he realized there was a problem. He’d never heard of it.

Upon discovering how to make the ground turkey based dish, he remained unimpressed. “It’s got a big name on it and it’s more hand work,” he said, “but it’s a sloppy joe.”

In an e-mail sent to Yale Dining administrators last week signed by “the chefs at Yale,” dining hall cooks expressed frustration with the many changes made this year to the menus and recipes they are asked to prepare every day. The letter — which was provided to the News by a Yale chef— complains of confusing and incomplete recipes, mislabeling of imported produce as “local,” and a lack of response from administrators to previous complaints.

Yale Dining Executive Director Rafi Taherian declined to comment on the letter because he said he hopes to resolve the matter internally.

In the past, chefs have helped design Yale Dining’s menus. But this year’s menu planning process — which cooks claimed to have been shut out of — confused and angered many of the cooks. Stu Comen, a first cook in Silliman College, said that for many years, he and other cooks would sit down with Yale Dining’s executive chef in order to design menus for the entire year. Those decisions were made with an eye to the limitations of each kitchen and the desires of students, Comen said.

But this year, Comen said, he has run into problems: Many entrees on each meal’s menu require the same equipment, leading chefs to “cut corners,” as the chefs’ e-mail read, to get meals out on time.

Tony Mucci, first cook in Calhoun, said that one recent day’s dining menu required him to prepare omelettes and a stir fry dish. Because preparation for both items requires the grill, Mucci said, he scrambled the eggs in order to free up space for the stir fry more quickly.

Comen also said he was surprised when a menu touted “local snap peas” and he received peas from Guatemala. Comen said he and some of his colleagues in other colleges re-labeled the peas to remove the word “local.” But the online menus remained unchanged, and in Trumbull, Douglass said, no one changed the sign.

“We feel as though we are lying to the students,” the chefs’ letter read.

Gerry Remer, Yale Dining’s purchasing manager denied that claim. Yale Dining only purchased peas grown in Connecticut or New York, she said, though it was possible a local distributor had repacked the peas in leftover boxes from Guatemala.

All three chefs interviewed underscored one of the e-mail’s primary complaints: that recipes provided to chefs are often incomplete or difficult to understand. In the past, Mucci said, similar issues were brought to the attention of Yale Dining’s executive chef, Thomas Peterlik. But Peterlik is now serving as the head of Commons Dining Hall and his former position has yet to be filled. Peterlik declined comment for this story. Without an executive chef position, Mucci said, the cooks’ complaints of confusion and inconsistencies are difficult to resolve quickly.

Some new recipes are also too complicated, all three chefs interviewed said.

“We want to present good quality food,” Mucci said. “You don’t have to have foods of the world. This isn’t the Culinary Institute of America.”

Still, two students interviewed said they appreciated Dining’s effort to expand the diversity of its food offerings and said they felt the quality had increased this year.

Mucci said that Taherian can be intimidating.

“If [managers] are not on his page, [they] are afraid to speak up,” Mucci said.

Taherian declined to comment on managers’ concerns.

Administrators have already begun making some of the changes asked for in the letter, cooks said, and Director of Residential Dining Regenia Phillips met with the cooks Thursday to discuss the e-mail further.

Cooks began to see changes this week: Comen said Dining has gone back to providing kitchens with pre-diced vegetables, something the cooks requested in the e-mail.

This fall marks only the second year Yale Dining has operated independently of dining provider Aramark, with whom the University contracted until 2008. Taherian, who came to Yale from Stanford University in spring 2008, has said previously that he was brought in to smooth the transition away from Aramark.

Food provided by Aramark was a low point for Yale Dining, said Mucci, who has worked in Yale’s dining system for more than 30 years. Still, he said, changes may be coming too quickly to the new system.

“I’ve seen the worst. I’ve seen the best,” Mucci said. “Right now we’re going backwards a bit.”

Yale Dining has fourteen dining halls open to undergraduates and serves over 14,000 meals a day.

Comments

  • SM’08

    Silliman’s Stu is the best cook that Yale has ever seen. Yale Dining should take his advice seriously.

  • Keith

    This is a ridiculous snapshot of what government-run healthcare is going to look like. If people are falling to pieces over where peas are from, imagine when they’re trying to treat your diabetes or cancer or heart disease using government issued instruction books.

  • alumni

    I’ve been following the Le case and happened to see this article. I want to reassure students that I believe Yale is making the right decision not using Aramark. I graduated in 2001 and had one “non-Aramark” dining year and 3 “Aramark” dining years. The food my first year was fantastic. Then it sharply declined, and continued to decline, thereafter. By senior year we started to feel like every night there was some version of pasta or chicken, and that was it. In contrast, the food freshman year was fabulous and they really treated us on special days, like for the super bowl. So I would encourage everyone to be patient- Yale is making the right step!

  • Hungry spider

    All I know is that the food at JE has been consistenty execllent and keeps getting better. Yay JE!

  • anonymous

    Keep it simple. Yale Dining’s best meals tended to be the simplest ones.

    While it was nice to have variety every once in a while, too often times attempts at more complicated dishes often fell woefully flat.

  • LM

    The crux here is that the people who actually prepare the food and work in the kitchens were not given input on the menus and processes. Alas, that is why so many businesses of all kinds are ill-managed and do not succeed–the Powers That Be don’t have a clue as to how things run.

  • Alum

    I agree with the first poster: Stu was always helpful and wise (I worked my way through), PLUS a great cook!

  • JE Sucks

    Hungry spider…really?

    The food is fine, nothing special, when they have it. But I have rarely dined in JE and had everything I needed. Sometimes it is a complete lack of spoons, other times forks. The cups are never there (though admittedly this year they have more cups…). Out of ketchup? Mostly. Don’t even TRY to ask for yellow mustard. And if you want a bagel, you have to be at breakfast by 9. They’re almost always out or running out of creamcheese, butter, yogurt. You sacrifice something everytime you eat in JE, and I’ve never had ruder service. Asking for something is like asking to move a mountain. Eating in JE is a low point of many people’s dining experiences, and I thought I was getting in the “rich” or “special” college. Post-renovation JE dining sucks.

  • rofl

    “By senior year we started to feel like every night there was some version of pasta or chicken, and that was it.”

    ahahahahah…. you have NO idea.

    This hasn’t changed even since Yale got rid of Aramark. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s gotten worse.

  • 2011

    I’ve loved the food since I’ve been back this semester, and I really appreciate Yale Dining’s efforts to incorporate cultural menu items. It seems every night, there’s a surprise– for once, in a good way.

  • SM 10

    The entire Silliman dining hall staff is amazing. The food is great, and while it’s occasionally crowded, it’s only because everyone wants to eat here!

  • MC 11

    Great job YDN! This is the type of article I want to see more of. I’ve been wondering what’s been happening in the Dining Halls all year.

  • seriously

    I would eat at the dining halls every day! Way better than the cereal I have every morning now that I’m out of college.

  • Goldie ’08

    Two words: clam strips

  • John_D

    Looking back, and comparing Yale with other universities that I know, there are three areas where Yale is head and shoulders above the others: (1) cultural events and facilities; (2) libraries; and (3) dining halls. Of course, Yale is tops in many other areas, but these are real stand-outs.

  • TD 12

    how can they call themselves chefs if they don’t even chop their own vegetables! Just lame and lazy…

  • to “alumni”

    Alumna? Alumnus? Really?

  • keep it simple

    just keep it simple. the more complex and fancy the food gets, the worse it usually is. do we really feel the need to be so damn cultured and eat food that simply isn’t good for whatever reason to satisfy a tiny minority of the student body? as a latino, i find it hilarious when they try to cook the “spanish rice” and all that. it tastes horrible. keep it simple; no one will be offended.

  • Harvard Man

    Are New York peas “local”?

  • in the know

    These are cooks, not chefs. At Yale, under the union contract, the chefs are not allowed to cook, they can only demonstrate to the cooks. In addition the chefs are Management and Professional exempt class. They plan the menus, order food, manage staff, etc. The cooks are all non-exempt union employees and love to complain about these kinds of changes (maybe sometimes justifiably).

  • Millie

    Post 2 is such a ridiculous stretch. Or at least I think it is. Under the old system were students routinely denied food because their hunger was a pre-existing condition?
    If anything, this article just goes to show that private institutions are as subject to inefficiency as government ones. The parallel would only hold up were we to learn that Yale spent billions of dollars finding ways to deny food to those on meal plans, even to the point of demanding payment for meals already served.

  • anonymous

    aw, TD12, you are a spoiled whiner. get out of my college. our dining hall and its staff are baller.

    the rest of you are pretty lame, too. go to other colleges and see what the dining halls are like.

  • chefstu

    Thanks for the nice comments. And you’re right! Silliman is the best!

  • anonymous

    ah, chef Stu, you poor, deluded creature- don’t you realize you’ll always be second best?????

  • anonymous

    The problem is that the cooks (not the chefs) aren’t skilled cooks. Yale doesn’t hire them for their culinary skills. You don’t need to be a restauranteur to see the benefits of having an executive chef in every kitchen.

  • MD

    #25 you don’t know what you are talking about. I know for a fact that there are cooks here that are Culinary School graduates and all the cooks have to pass a rigorous test in the kitchen to prove their culinary skills before they are hired. Management should have regular staff meetings where ideas are discussed.

  • MR

    One of the dining hall managers told me last year how they had problems with cooks injuring themselves because they didn’t know how to use knives without straining their wrists. It was the first time they had ever cut large amounts of vegetables. Even the lowest grade of cook should know how to use a knife.

  • billy d

    Yale dining needs to be flushed out the top administrators are intimidating and use negative methods, we are poor people and the top administrator is taking advantage of us, please stop/fire them

  • sammy b

    This is a case study of corruption from the top, executive director need to go; he is rude, intimidating and has no respect for his people

  • billy gene

    Why does the Yale administration allow the top dining administrators to behave poorly towards its poor and struggling staff? this is suppose to be yale beacon of hope and fairness, we need to clean dining program

  • jammy u

    Make the executive director pay public and see how much a cook makes (who actually works) then compare it to executive who walk around with tie and suit and treat people badly! i think Yale top people would not do this….and hide behind the close doors. Make things public Yale administration and let us see the truth or keep cheating….where did my peas came from??

  • TD dining student

    #22 said it– TD food is consistently pretty great for college dining. That chicken nacho thingy the other night? Heaven! The yam and chickpea patties? Sublime, and healthy! So, while our nemeses in Silliman may indeed enjoy Chef Stu, we love our dining hall too.