For Rafi Taherian, the first organic oatmeal cranberry cookie was a good one.
“[Interim Director of Residential Dining Operations Chuck Bennett] says they’re the best,” Taherian says, biting into one on Friday morning in the Saybrook College Dining Hall.
The cookie was just one of many Yale “firsts” for Yale’s incoming executive director of dining services, who was selected two weeks ago after a six-month search process settled on the Iranian-born, Italian-educated immigrant from a pool of 13 candidates. Taherian, on campus last week to tour the University and meet with dining-hall managers, says he has no immediate plans to make changes to YUDS.
“It’s dangerous to make assumptions,” Taherian says, explaining that he wants to learn about the department’s existing structure before considering changes. “When you come to an institution with a long history, you have to be respectful to the organization and everyone in the organization.”
But Taherian said he plans to solicit feedback from students. As executive director, he said, he will ensure that students are the “key stakeholders” in YUDS’ operations. But for now, Taherian plans to learn the ropes.
“It’s going to be a journey,” Taherian says of his transition into his new post. “It’s not something where you can just flip a switch. You don’t have a cookie-cutter operation here. You can’t just apply one solution, one unit and apply it to all and say, ‘Okay, I’m done.’ ”
The 2003 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America will begin his tenure in the top post at YUDS in March, following the exit of Don McQuarrie, an employee of food-service-management company Aramark.
While on campus, Taherian made a point of visiting each dining hall to meet with managerial staff in each “unit” — as YUDS officials refer to residential-college dining halls. His schedule also included meetings with students and Yale Sustainable Food Project coordinators Melina Shannon-DiPietro and Joshua Viertel.
Taherian’s selection is the most prominent staff change resulting from the University’s June 2007 decision to abandon its relationship with Philadelphia-based conglomerate and food-services provider Aramark.
Although administrators maintain the decision to break off ties with Aramark and run YUDS in-house came as a result of the University’s growing self-sufficiency and lessons learned from Aramark, local union leaders have indicated that YUDS may have distanced itself from Aramark because of the latter’s emphasis on cost-cutting, sometimes at the expense of quality and student satisfaction.
When contacted by the News days after the University told Aramark that its contract would not be renewed, a spokeswoman for the company said they were proud of their 10-year partnership with Yale.
Taherian joined Stanford’s staff in 1996 as a senior chef manager. After a five-year stint as associate director of residential dining, Taherian filled the executive-director post left vacant by the exit of Nadeem Siddiqui for six months in an acting capacity, before formally assuming the post on Dec. 13, 2004.
But despite his extensive management experience, Taherian maintains a love of food he developed as a cook in Venice’s premier seafood restaurant.
“I love to cook,” Taherian says, placing a fist over his heart. “Here, there is always a cook. Whether I am wearing a suit or tie because that is this uniform, inside, there is always a chef’s jacket.”