In a small office on 246 Church St., Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining, tells me about his first bite of tofu apple crisp.
“I remember having it, and I didn’t like it,” Taherian says with a telling grin. “Few people like it, and a lot of people hate it.”
But that apple — it was one thousands of apples, carefully plucked from the scenic fields of a sustainable, organic farm in upstate New York. The grain — it’s a high quality durum wheat, strategically delivered to minimize greenhouse gases and production costs. And, of course, the tofu — it’s one of the silkiest, freshest, most natural tofu options a diner can find. Yet it strikes me, while sitting in the largely unknown Dining Administrative Offices, that very few people know about the food that we consume at Yale: those scrupulous touches of artistic finesse and healthy practice on each bite, and the heroically sustainable purchasing methods that bolster the agriculture of New England.
“We’re a stealth health campus,” Taherian proudly announces. “Sometimes when you put on the health stamp, there’s a kiss of death, and people’s number one objective is ‘how can [we] find something wrong with [the food]?’ ”
But as a painfully picky, critical and conscious eater, even I cannot.
Taherian insists that the root of it all, of both his time at Yale and of a reinvented Yale Dining, is a fundamental food revolution that occurred on campus nearly five years ago.
In the winter of 2008, University officials decided not to renew a contract with Aramark, a food services and management company, after 10 years of partnership. Under this contract management configuration, menus, recipes and training programs were under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia-based contractor. But now, Yale Dining is entirely self-operated, crafting its own supply-based management that puts it at the forefront of innovative and healthy collegiate dining.
“Now, everyone’s loyalty, value, vision and goals go directly to Yale,” Taherian, who joined Yale after a nationwide search for a new executive director, says.
With power restored to the hands of Yale, dining rapidly evolved to become more interactive and informative. The farm tours series expanded to introduce students to Yale’s growers; the celebrity chef series brought in renowned culinary masters to mentor staff and serve special dinners; the annual Final Cut competition began to engage students directly with ingredients.
“It was really exciting to work directly with the dining hall chefs on recipes and skills they normally wouldn’t [use] for dinner,” Kevin Adkisson ’12 said, a past winner and judge of the Final Cut competition. “It was fascinating to see how efficient yet flexible the whole system of dining halls is.”
Still, there’s more. This year, we even get a special theme.
“Yale is an incredibly culturally diverse place, so the menu this year is celebrating that,” newly appointed Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke SOM ’86 tells me. “We’ve had various ethnic food in the past, but one of the keys [to this year’s menu] is that dishes will not only be ethnically themed but will be, for example, real Moroccan recipes.”
Van Dyke, sitting across from Taherian, continues to elaborate, eyes cast in a modest pride as she recalls the grand successes of Yale Dining, which operates more dining halls than those of the average Ivy League school.
“There are only 60 certified master chefs in the whole U.S.,” Van Dyke explains, “and one of them is [Director of Culinary Excellence] Ron DeSantis, who plans the menus and oversees the training of the cooks.”
The cooks, along with hundreds of dining hall staffers, consistently accomplish an incredible logistical feat of making up to 15,000 meals a day. The team is aided by a state-of-the-art computer system that monitors student presence and preference, a system that boosted Gatorade supply in Pierson after indicating that the dining hall was a popular destination for the football team, Van Dyke fondly recalls.
“The dining hall workers and managers care about what students like, and what students look for,” Davenport student dining hall manager Albert Chang ’13 said, who assumes responsibilities that include monitoring inventory and locking up. “They really do care about the well-being of students.
Somehow, some way, hundreds of staffers manage to crack 10,000 eggs per day, grill the necessary 1,200 pounds of chicken for lunch, and sauté the 900 pounds of green beans that were added last-minute to the dinner menu. The secret is, in fact, not quite a secret, one that we are all too familiar with: hard work.
“We do 10,000 hours of training on an annual basis,” Taherian says. “People sometimes don’t know how complicated [preparing 14-15,000 meals a day] is.”
“And having them hot and ready by 11:30!” Van Dyke interjects.
And so it gets done. Freshmen who arrived on campus earlier this month mingled at residential college welcoming dinners and ate sweet potatoes that, once upon a time, were inspected for proper, low-waste cutting methods by a Yale chef who underwent training on the delicate art of knife-wielding. For a college campus, the time, energy and resources invested in that one slice of sweet potato are unprecedented. We may not know it, but we are served on silver plates.
Beyond our scope, though, there must be a catch — there always is. But, as I weigh the information I’ve acquired, I conclude that the good certainly outweighs the bad. With the purchasing power and resources of Yale, what could have been a damaged food-scape and environment is actually a quiet history and practice of harmony.
Forty minutes outside of New Haven is Glastonbury, Conn., an agricultural town comfortably nestled in a spoon of cool forests and fertile fields. Glastonbury sits on the banks of the sky-blue Connecticut River, flowing just two miles from a place called Rose’s Berry Farm, home of Yale’s blueberries.
“The farm is a gorgeous place, and it produces the necessary sustenance for our bodies and for agriculture as an industry,” Li Boynton ’14 explained, who has been berry picking at Rose’s Berry Farm and other Connecticut farms.
The farm, which being its picking season next week, is known for its organic and sustainable fruits, which then are transported by Yale’s regional distributor, FreshPoint, to the dining halls. It’s partially due to the support of Yale’s purchasing power that farm owner Sandra Rose does not succumb to the decline of farming. In fact, real estate developers are eyeing the beautiful plot of emerald-colored land as a construction ground for eight or nine new mansions.
“If Sandy [sells the land],” Taherian warns all Yale blueberry aficionados, “you’re not going to have the best blueberries in Connecticut.”
Likewise, dining officials have crafted and delegated purchases to support a local buying chain from farmers to supermarkets. From a farmer’s perspective, the selling of hundreds of pounds of one product to Yale — plus a profitable bill for labor and transportation — is less appetizing than bringing products to tens of farmer’s markets, staying hours at a time and selling pound by painstaking pound. But if Yale buys its produce in bulk, then where do the markets buy their produce?
“We could wipe out some of these beautiful artisan distributions,” Taherian says hypothetically, noting the scale of Yale’s purchasing power. “But then, is that the right thing to do for us?”
It’s not, and Yale does not. Surprisingly, the catch here is also good. Through the awareness raised by Yale Dining regarding what truly “good” food is — homegrown, organic and sustainable, among other qualities — there is increased demand for these farmer’s markets and supermarkets. The supply chain responds accordingly, and there is an increase in production capability on the farms. Everyone, in essence, wins. In the most local of markets, there is no dissatisfaction.
“We’re having farmers bring their foods to the market themselves,” said Nicole Berube, executive director of the New Haven-based City Seed.
Produce department manager Neil Pandora of Elm City Market also felt positively about the dearth of local produce. “We’re very able to buy from small farms. Most of it’s local, from Connecticut or connecting states,” he said.
Yale Dining tries to purchase regionally, so that roughly 80 percent of purchasing money will be circulated back into the region to support the area’s agriculture; national spending, however, is more likely to be lost in other states. Similarly, Yale Dining’s commitment to supporting the tri-state area continues in a sleek system of back delivery, in which trucks are stocked for both delivery and return to minimize greenhouse gases and fuel consumption.
Van Dyke provides an example of how this system is streamlined.
“We wanted [our regional distributor’s trucks] to load chicken [at our chicken supplier in upstate New York] on its way back so the total cost is lower,” Van Dyke explains, motioning her hands back and forth to explain a simple yet underutilized cost-cutting tactic.
“Under the hood, there are a lot of things that need to happen to create sustainable food systems,” Taherian picks up. “These are the romantic messages that people don’t talk or write about.”
Instead, the glory of Yale’s impressive sustainability statistics float around campus by word of mouth and by print, with an unmatched humility and a quiet confidence. The scrambled eggs served at brunch are made from cage free eggs and organic Connecticut milk — a combination more healthful than the average scrambled eggs. With 90 percent of dining hall meat antibiotic-free and humanely raised, almost all the protein is sustainable and organic. All of the bakery products are made from scratch using all-natural ingredients, including natural sweeteners and whole fruits.
Years ago, only 5 to 9 percent of the total dollars of food purchases came from sustainable sources. During Yale Dining’s contract management, there was only a small and simplistic sustainable food initiative: one day per week in one dining hall, sustainable food was served.
Over at the Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP), Program Coordinator Zan Romanoff ’09 knows Yale has come a long way since then. She was a Lazarus Fellow in Food and Agriculture from 2010 to 2012 and interned at the Yale Farm in 2007, approximately a year before Yale’s sustainability took off. And while the YSFP works separately from dining halls, it nonetheless actively promotes food sustainability for universities.
“Our goal is to create a generation of food-literate leaders: people who, no matter their field, have a sense of respect for issues of food and sustainability,” Romanoff explained. “We’re looking to integrate ourselves more deeply into the classrooms across campus, to expand internship opportunities for students and to partner with organizations on all levels when we bring speakers to Yale.”
In other prominent campus organizations, leaders are impressed.
“Yale has been a trendsetter in several respects,” said Kelly Brownell, director and co-founder of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. “[Taherian] is highIy imaginative and has made important and ingenious changes in the Yale dining environment, and the YSFP is known nationally for being innovative and effective.”
With the YSFP and Office of Sustainability managing sustainability on a university-wide level, Yale Dining is now spending a whopping 40 percent of its total dollars on sustainable sources.
“With these kinds of [sustainability] standards, we are the industry leader in college and university food services,” DeSantis, Yale’s own master chef, said.
Soon, he is planning to serve a freshly, sustainably and organically sourced pescado à la veracruzana dish using slow-baked fish slathered in tomato and garlic over a bed of cilantro. But DeSantis, who used to teach nutrition in the 1990s, isn’t trying to fool anyone — he knows that not everything is, or can be, the perfect picture of health.
Curious, I ask him if he thinks Yale food, despite the popularity of relatively caloric and fatty dishes, is healthful.
“I like the word ‘healthful,’” DeSantis notes, after my repeated switching between the words ‘healthy’ and ‘healthful.’ “I sat with a lot of student focus groups, and I heard things like ‘comfort foods’ — obviously, we still are going to keep those foods, like Berkeley Mac and Cheese.”
Back in the Dining Hall Administrative Offices, Taherian’s voice deepens as he recounts a battle between students and dining officials when one popular dish was rejected for its low nutritional value.
“There was a huge fight over chicken tenders,” he remembers. “We used to serve chicken tenders that were pumped up [with chemicals] and had lots of salt, and so we decided not to serve that product and to terminate our agreement with that manufacturer.”
Outrage ensued. Students fought against the loss and protested with emails, phone calls and Facebook, and even parents and senior Yale administrators had complaints. It took almost four months to reformulate a chicken tenders recipe that met Yale’s criteria for healthfulness and sustainability. The new and improved dish is nonetheless one of students’ favorites. Van Dyke, who was not around during the era of early tenders, is at once impressed and stunned by students’ attachment to the breaded dish — she’s heard rumors about a “chicken tenders alert network.”
“And then,” Taherian continues, sighing and looking down, “there was the Great Salad Controversy of 2009.”
Students suspected that changes were made to the salad bar as a result of budget, and Yale Dining did little to communicate the precise reasons for switching out self-serve ingredients with pre-made salads. The reasoning behind the change was that pre-made salads would encourage students to eat more plant-based food by offering well-combined salads. University officials invested in training chefs to prepare salads that matched regional, seasonal flavors. The addition of sautéed mushrooms to salad bars meant a tenfold increase in mushroom purchases — along with other increases in ingredients, Yale Dining’s produce consumption went up by 35 percent. Dressings became entirely made from scratch, many with a base of Arbequina olive oil from California, which retails for $75 per gallon. During trial phases, some salad bars were filled entirely with pre-made salads, frustrating students who wanted the liberty to mix and match ingredients to their stomachs’ content.
“I had really enjoyed making my own salads,” Juliana Biondo ’13 said, who, along with other students, was limited by the new pre-made options. “Having variety really mattered!”
The Great Salad Controversy was perhaps the single greatest moment of dissatisfaction among those with special dietary needs, practices or preferences. Although it blew over, some students still feel that there’s room for improvement.
“I mostly eat salads. I never felt like I was going hungry,” said Martina Crouch ’14, a vegetarian since high school. “But it would be cool if some of the dining halls had more variety in terms of toppings.”
In the administrative office, the 500-plus team of Yale Dining does its best to ensure that special dietary needs, such as Crouch’s vegetarianism, are met.
“The best kept secret in Yale Dining is that we customize food for a large number of students, and we don’t usually talk about it — students with allergies, dietary issues and special needs,” Taherian says to me, leaning closer, strangely confessing this act of magnanimous flexibility.
Taherian and Van Dyke hand me flyers that ask students with food allergies to self-identify, a nascent food allergy awareness campaign officially announced by Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry on Wednesday. Behind the scenes, dining hall staff cook individual meals for those who can’t eat most of what’s served. When a student’s allergies are so severe that entering a dining hall poses a health risk, dining hall workers do delivery, coordinating a specially cooked meal and meeting the student at the door.
“The JE dining hall made me gluten-free quesadillas with avocado slices,” recalled Sofie Tucker ’14, who is allergic to the wheat and corn in tortillas. “In general, the dining hall manager of each college does his or her best to accommodate the students by creating special sections in the back of the kitchen.”
At some point in their collegiate careers, a few students get a chance to go behind the grill: student managers, students with allergies, students on farm tours, students who work in sustainability and now, even me. We are more arbitrary than chosen, following some small curiosity or dragged by some serendipity to the growers, purchasers and benefactors of our nourishment. Deep down, below the complaints and the criticism, under all the fierce reluctance to changes in food at Yale, we learn we are spoiled.
Still, Yale Dining plays it cool and casual.
“We have the commitment,” Taherian says, offering insight on the concentric circles of good food around a center of sustainability and healthfulness. “When our community is a strong one, these circles become bigger.”
And even if we never understand the existence of tofu apple crisp, or forgive Yale Dining for months without chicken tenders, at the very least, a farmer gives a tour to enthralled visitors, a bustling market sells organic produce to families, a chicken bobs its head outside a cage and our bodies thrive with the nutrition of a thousand carefully selected ingredients — made possible only when there is a bit of attention to what food truly means.
Correction: Sept. 5
An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Yale Farm provides produce to campus dining halls.