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.