Dining Stir Fries up more Plant-Rich Options with Help from the CIA

Over the course of a year, Dining Services plans, prepares, and serves over 900,000 meals.  The team continually reviews feedback, from online and paper comment cards to meal attendance and thinks about improvements and innovations.  At the end of February, I had a chance to chat with Charlotte Clark, Senior Operations Manager for Paresky, Jimmy Guiden, Senior Operations Manager for the Mission Park Production Kitchen, and Director of Dining, Temesgen Araya, about some of the initiatives that Dining is working on this spring.

Here are the highlights:

Skill building courtesy of the CIA and Chef Jet Tila 

This Winter Study, the CIA was back on campus—no, not that CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, one of the top culinary training schools in the US—for the third year in a row.  There was a plant rich bent to this year’s training, with the theme of the day progressing over the course of five days from soups to grains, to legumes, to salads with the goal of building out the team’s repertoire in each of those areas.  The focus, said Jimmy Guiden, was on “cuisines from Asian countries such as Korea, Vietnam, and India as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean, to learn menus that were plant rich, full of flavor and focused on the vibrant colors of fresh vegetables.”

dishes prepared during the CIA training
Chojin, Radish Salad, Pico de Gallo, Refried Pinto Beans Corn Tortillas & Corn Fritters

The CIA trainings cover “a broad range of topics for both our current and new culinary staff,” added Dining Director Temesgen Araya. “It includes a sustainable component focused on plant-based fresh produce, grains, and legumes. The methods and flavoring techniques taught support our plant-rich programs and general plant-based cooking initiatives, along with waste prevention strategies. These strategies emphasize the yielding and cross-utilization of a wide array of products. For example, when deboning fish or chicken, we save the bones, and similarly, we save vegetable peelings to create flavorful stocks for soups and sauces,” he said. 

Chef Jet Li at Annual Dining training on stage in front of screen with newspaper articles of him
Chef Jet Li at Annual Dining training

Temesgen also mentioned Dining’s annual August Training Days program.  In addition to educating Dining staff on core principles and strategic plan goals, during this training the Dining leadership team brings in guest chefs. This past year, Chef Jet Tila returned to campus to train staff on various international and cultural cooking styles.  The training also includes opportunities to learn from other dining programs such as the UMass Amherst dining team.   

Update on Fresh Vending Machines 

Back in October 2023, shortly after Dining’s Fresh Vending machines were launched, we talked with Director of Dining Temesgen Araya about the machines.  And now, some four months later, the Zilkha Center was interested in seeing how they are faring.  As you may remember, Dining started with their fresh vending machines in the Mission Park lounge, near the front entrance, and in the basement of Sawyer Library.  We learned from Jimmy Guiden that in the first few months, the Sawyer machine was more popular, but in January, the Mission machine was vandalized and needed to be taken offline.  It was fixed and back in business by mid February. Overall, the interest in the offerings has increased. The most popular items are the fresh fruit parfaits, which fly off the (refrigerated) shelves, the wraps, and salads, especially the chicken caesar variety.  

Whitman's Plant Based Street Food Night at the Start of the Spring Semester
Whitman’s Plant Based Street Food Night at the Start of the Spring Semester

Plant-rich Items on the Menu

Did you catch the Street Food Adventure dinner at Whitman’s at the start of the semester?  Dining continues to experiment with various themed meals and build-your-own concepts such as the grain bowls and taco bars. Whitman’s now has 17 meals that are plant-rich, which essentially means prioritizing plant-based proteins. Plant-rich items are popping up across campus for a few reasons. In 2021, the college signed on to the Coolfood Pledge, an initiative of the World Resources Institute and its partners with a goal of reducing food-related emissions by 25% by 2030, an ambition that is aligned with achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. There is also an increased interest in plant-rich items and a general understanding that plant-rich meals are healthier for both individuals and the environment. Charlotte Clark highlighted the Bao buns, bibimbap, dragon noodle bar, the lunch nacho bar in Whitman’s and the build-your-own toasted sandwiches in the 82 Grill as popular plant-based options.  Some of the new options that have been hits include the broccoli pesto green machine (broccoli, tomatoes, balsamic, and mozzarella), the breaded eggplant, and the bbq jackfruit.  

Nick Illich, Snack Bar Attendant at Late Night in front of the Fresh Blends machine
Nick Illich, Snack Bar Attendant at Late Night, in front of the Fresh Blends machine

Fresh Blends @ Late Night 

Starting in early February, a new machine at Whitman’s Snack Bar (”Snar”) changed the offerings at Late Night.  The Fresh Blends machine offers fruit smoothies, milkshakes, frozen lemonade, and frozen coffee. Charlotte Clark said that at the start of the semester, items from Fresh Blends made up approximately half of the late night sales, but by the end of the month sales had leveled off to about a third of all late night sales. According to her, the favorites are milkshakes and smoothies, particularly the mango flavor.  “Fresh Blends presents an exciting range of new beverage options, featuring smoothies crafted with organic fruits,” wrote Charlotte in a follow up email after our conversations, adding that “Dining is committed to continually enhancing the menu at Whitmans Late Night, aiming to offer an improved and broader selection for students.”