Overseeing strategy, operational excellence and innovation to deliver more than 14,000 meals per day in 31 venues throughout the Yale University campus, Rafi Taherian has a lot on his plate. But he embraces the challenge with a hearty laugh, a dare-to-be- different approach and a deep love for the industry that he has served for 25 years.
In May, the industry loved him back by presenting him with the 2016 Gold Plate Award. This was recognition of his leadership and game-changing work with the Yale foodservice team, which he joined in 2008, and before that at Stanford University, where he served as executive director of dining for 13 years. Taherian sat down with FE&S to share his insights on the rapidly changing college and university foodservice segment.
FE&S: During your career, you've seen and have personally influenced dramatic change in how college and university foodservice does its business. What have been the biggest developments in terms of operations and infrastructure?
RT: Thirty years ago, our objective was to create massive amounts of institutional food as efficiently as possible. Back then, if you asked a chef what he wanted, he'd say, 'Give me big kettles with a lot of BTUs that let me cook big quantities of food at one time.' That's how food was done. Mac and cheese, stews, casseroles — food that was generally cooked earlier, put in hotel pans and parked in warmers to be ready for when the students came in. That's not to demonize it. The problem was real: You had to be prepared to serve a surge of 300 or 500 or 1,000 people in a very short window of time.
But then the paradigm shifted. We discovered that market, or marche, concepts could serve thousands of people quickly — not all in one line but in many lines at many concepts serving many different things. Suddenly, you didn't have to actually cook way ahead of time. You could bring preparation a little closer to the service time. That effectively revolutionized our equipment needs. We went from wanting big, institutional back-of-the-house equipment to needing smaller, faster, versatile front-of-the-house equipment. It was an amazing transformation and one that is still evolving.
FE&S: Did manufacturers anticipate and readily adapt to those changing equipment needs?
RT: The industry went through major shock during this process. Manufacturers had always looked at us as good buyers of big pieces of equipment. We'd go to shows, and they'd call us into their booths, boasting, 'I've got a great 80-gallon kettle for you. You can put a cow in there!' But all of a sudden, the format changed, the cuisine began to change and you had this this huge segment of the industry start asking for combi ovens and rotisseries, items that 25 years ago you would never have imagined would have a place in college and university dining.
At the same time, simple demographics began to impact the types of equipment we needed as well. That great 80-gallon kettle? It also wasn't right for the changing workforce. Thirty years ago, many of the workers in the back of the house were World War II soldiers who came home and were trained to become cooks on the GI Bill. But that workforce started becoming more diverse. There's no way a lot of our current workers could even reach inside the top of that kettle.
So manufacturers did begin to listen and respond to our changing needs on a number of levels.
FE&S: The evolution has impacted not just equipment needs but dining room design as well.
RT: Yes, very dramatically. Instead of a huge, hotel-style kitchen in the back, you now have thesepockets of the kitchen in the middle of the servery. It used to all be very standardized, but today, we're designing our spaces to accommodate a natural flow of people that isn't based on the space but on functionality and needs. So you have spaces where the foodservice element is in the center of the dining room. Where did we get that idea? We got it from the open-kitchen concept. We took that and parked it in the middle of the space so that food is being prepared and served and enjoyed in the same integrated and organic space. But even more than that, it's now multi-use, flexible space that can be adapted to more than one thing. After a meal period, a dining room can be converted to a student performance space, for instance. What a waste if we don't design it to be flexible enough to adapt to the lifestyle of the campus community.
FE&S: On the commercial side, the time frame between redesigning, refreshing or rebranding has shrunk considerably. Is the same true of college and university dining spaces and concepts?
RT: Absolutely. We used to want stuff to last 30 years. Today, we don't care about that. If you spend that much money for super-durable materials that last 20 to 30 years, what if in 7 or 10 years, you want something different? With materials, as with overall designs, flexibility has come into sharp focus and, to a certain extent, durability has gone out because the pace of change is so much quicker. Just in the past decade, materials have changed significantly. Years ago, it would have been completely beyond imagination that we would have concrete floors, but concrete floors are now celebrated. If you'd asked me 25 years ago what I wanted to have in a servery, I would have said terra cotta tile. Now, you can't see that anywhere.
One of the things that attract me so much is how the integration of forms and functionality has become so beautiful. It's amazing, and there's so much room now for imagination. For example, we have a salad bar that we create for catering functions. We use three 25-foot-long reclaimed oak boards that we refinished. We just put salad on top of it — no bowls or
containers, just salad presented directly on the boards. It's beautiful.
We also have to keep up with what's going on in commercial foodservice. We have much more diversification of cuisines. If 20 years ago we were introducing Chinese food, it might have been a beef and broccoli dish on the serving line. Today, you can't just do that. The Asian cuisines have their own subcategories — Korean, Southeast Asian, Thai, Vietnamese. These are all very different from each other and require different kinds of support.
And over just the past few years, we've experienced something even more different, with food trucks and street food catching on. We brought those onto campus as well so that our students don't feel that by eating in our operations, they're missing opportunities for experiences that they could have outside of campus.
FE&S: What has your team been focusing on in terms of menu innovation?
RT: We have moved ourselves to a more plant-based menu system. We did not eliminate animalproteins, but we increased the quality of those proteins significantly. For quite some time, we've been completely antibiotic-free and hormone-free with our meats, and we use sustainable seafood. But here's the thing: While we upped the quality, we also wanted to reduce consumption. We felt we were using way too much protein, so we looked at countries where they use the least amount of animal protein and moved in that direction. We're now seeing a significant reduction in consumption of animal-based proteins on campus. That helps us offset the cost of increasing the quality, and we also see a tremendous amount of student satisfaction in terms of what they eat and how they experience our environment. It's the first time we're seeing that health and wellness are now associated with perception of quality. In the past, if you tagged something as a healthy option, it was the kiss of death for that product. We see a complete reverse of that now, and we take a much more integrated approach.
Years ago, if you wanted to have a vegetarian option, for instance, all you did was take out the meat and put in some tofu. That didn't make it good because tofu was never meant to be there in the first place! So students were presented with having the 'real' version or the 'fake' version. That's not what we do. Instead, we started to look at countries where a diet of less animal protein is normal and meat is not central to the dish. There are some areas where we do use meat substitutes, but we also use a host of Mediterranean and Central American recipes that feature plant-based proteins, such as quinoa and beans.
We're also developing more vegan options. Our lavender-honey semolina cake is the No. 1 dessert that we make in our bakery. People don't even know that there is no butter or eggs in it; we use olive oil. We also developed incredible vegetable charcuterie for catering — rutabaga pastrami and mushroom salami, for instance. And more and more, we're pushing small portions of animal proteins to the corner of the plate and filling the center with interestingly prepared fresh vegetables and grains. We're not saying no to meat — people are always asking us about Meatless Monday, but we don't do that. We take a more holistic approach. We've been saying to ourselves, 'Let's be courageous, and let's give ourselves permission to innovate and do things differently.'
FE&S: In what one area would you most like to see equipment manufacturers innovate and do things differently?
RT: We really need an integrated equipment language. We're all suffering without it, and we've all been asking for it for a long time. That would be a big opportunity for the future — how can you create smart-suite solutions that aren't isolated by manufacturer. When you buy your computer system, you can purchase your processor from one company, your monitor from another, your keyboard from another, and they all work together because they share an integrated platform. We need that same sort of democratized approach to foodservice equipment. It requires manufacturers switching their mindset from 'What's good for me and my shareholders is good for my customer' to 'What's good for my customer is good for me and my shareholders.' If you reverse that and say, 'I'm going to be an innovator and try to create something that is really good for the customer, and what the customer wants is flexibility, cross-platform adaptability and open-source architecture,' it would be fantastic.