Tasting Tables, Produce Wheel Help Keep Things Fresh and Fun
UC Santa Barbara, Jill Horst has remained on the lookout for innovative products and concepts that help deliver to her customers the overarching message that "food is fun." To that end, Horst makes regular pilgrimages to events like the National Restaurant Association Show (she even graces the cover of the association's 2015 registration promo brochure), where each day, she says, she "finds nuggets of gold that my students will wait in line for."During her past 20 years as director of residential dining at
Horst is active in the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) and earlier this year UCSB hosted the association's Pacific Chef Net 2015, a three-day regional conference for fellow college and university chefs. The event included dividing the chefs into four teams for a Culinary Creations cooking session designed to let a panel of 20 students — selected via an Instagram food photo contest — sample and explore new dishes. The teams spread across mobile and outdoor cooking stations and each had 90 minutes to prepare dishes, working from market baskets and "must use" ingredients, to create a multi-course menu for the students to sample.
This type of event, and approach to dining innovation, serves as a UC Santa Barbara calling card and something that's often available to the school's 6,500 meal-plan holders. Increasing student satisfaction, educating their palates beyond burgers or mac and cheese, and encouraging them to choose healthy options while learning to value eating local, all come into play in the daily dynamic of menuing food in the school's all-you-choose-to-eat dining commons.
On an ongoing basis, UCSB does its own in-house version of Culinary Creations via weekly Tasting Tables. Run by the department's executive chef or the particular dining hall manager, it rotates week after week among the four residential dining halls, popping up with a different selection of items prepared for tasting each time. In all, 11 distinct Tasting Tables are scheduled each quarter.
"This concept allows us to be front-of-the-house," Horst points out. "We do it all by ourselves without hiring outside guest or celebrity chefs." The benefits of the concept are three-fold, she finds: It's a good way to get immediate feedback when testing new dishes; it provides an educational opportunity for the chef or manager to introduce less well-known items, such as persimmons, and discuss their nutritional profiles; and it's an opportunity that students and staff enjoy.
"The Tasting Table allows for creativity," Horst says. "Our chefs might do anything from crepes to fried calamari from scratch, using local sustainable seafood."
Overall, as the once-a-week Tasting Table rotates through each dining commons, customers have 34 weeks of opportunities to taste an unknown something. "Students have the opportunity to taste and learn about a food item, a technique, etc. And we have a following," Horst notes. "We put it on social media so they know what's being prepared and where. If they choose to, students could attend a different Tasting Table show each week by going to a different dining commons."
Generally the UCSB team will go on to evaluate well-received Tasting Table dishes for inclusion in future menus. An item such as deep-fried artichoke hearts, also a big hit, might wind up on a themed meal menu, Horst explains. "The students love anything fried! We wanted to present artichoke hearts primarily to educate their palates. We create a specialized menu for a themed meal once per quarter in each building; each location chooses a theme, such as Southern, Mediterranean, Indian, etc. It provides an opportunity for us to go outside the parameter of the normal menu format."
"Sustainability" is the mantra on college campuses from coast to coast and it's "huge" at UCSB, Horst reports. "Local purchasing is part of our DNA."
Since 2007, Horst and her department have been working with Harvest Santa Barbara, a distributor of local farm produce sourced from 150 miles or closer. Produce grown by about 42 farmers is delivered to the UCSB dining department's loading docks within 24 hours of being picked.
To further leverage its local produce initiative, the department created a Seasonal Produce Wheel that details the items expected from the 42 farmers. Although each dining commons operates in a stand-alone manner and each building generates its own menu cycle, UCSB requires them all to feature seasonal items that appear on the wheel, highlighted by the season, the months it's available and its flavorful peak.
Each of the dining commons managers comes up with recipes for about a dozen items, tying in menus with seasonal produce featured on the wheel. "We're able to tie in something from June into July, for example, since it's still the same summer season," she says. "We aim to feature the best of the best; therefore, Produce Wheel is part of our outreach during Sustainability Week, Nutrition Week, Earth Day, etc. Plus, the wheel is out and often featured at a Tasting Table and on social media. When we're featuring a local item at a Tasting Table, we'll put out a blurb about the farm and the farmer, to make that connection. Plus, it's something we
created that we're really proud of!"
Intimating future innovation, Horst is brimming with news of having finished designing a brand new dining commons, with the grand opening slated for early winter of 2017. One of the school's existing four dining halls will be closing and the new one will be built from the ground up.
She's especially pleased to have specified a state-of-the-art, multi-functional gas circular cook top for the new facility. "I have a Mongolian grill in a commons but it's so high-heat it's hard to do an omelet on it," she admits. "This new one is a very flexible piece of equipment that's visually appealing and meant to be out front."
For the new dining commons, Horst will also be introducing a Tandoori oven for international flavors. "It will be in the same station as a Sushi area and a Ramen Bar offering small bowls of hot broth, noodles and a selection of toppings," she says. With Instagram food photo contests all the rage on campus — Horst has been known to award prizes for the best photos taken of elements of a dining commons meal, such as the invitation to serve on the recent Culinary Creations sampling panel — there will be plenty of new photo ops at UCSB.