Big ideas are the order of the day at UMass Amherst Dining Services. How big? Within the past two years, the department twice propelled the University of Massachusetts flagship campus into the Guinness Book of World Records by producing both the world's largest sushi roll and a record-setting 4,010-pound stir fry. The school hosts the largest campus foodservice event in the nation with its annual Taste of UMass, which this year featured 70 food booths, entertainment, celebrity guest appearances, an "Ultimate Cupcake War", and UMass Idol and Dance Dance Revolution contests.
Each year UMass Dining also attracts more than 250 top university and college chefs from around the country to its renowned Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference for five days of seminars, workshops, collaborative recipe development, team building and culinary competitions. Among this year's guest presenters: Roy Choi, food truck guru and creator of the famed Kogi BBQ food trucks in Los Angeles.
With its own staff touting 15 professionally trained chefs, many of whom came to the school from posts at top hotel and fine dining positions, the department continually enriches their experience — and its offerings to students — by bringing in outside chefs for training, competitions and guest appearances.
Its annual Visiting College Chef Series, for instance, brings in chefs from top domestic and international schools to work with the UMass staff and cook for students. This spring, 11 chefs from five universities across Canada prepared gourmet meals showcasing their nation's specialties. Regular celebrity chef appearances also give UMass Dining Services staff insights and students tastes of specialties from experts in specific cuisines, such as Mediterranean (Joanne Weir), New Southern (Susan Spicer), Chinese/Cantonese (Martin Yan) and Southeast Asian (Mia Pham).
In 2006, UMass Dining completed the renovation of what is now its marquee residential dining facility, Berkshire Dining Commons. Warm, inviting and contemporary, with multilevel seating and multiple display cooking stations, the 800-seat Berkshire has the look and feel of a vibrant, upscale culinary marketplace. Diners can cruise the noodle bar with choices from around the world, order custom pizzas and calzones baked in huge brick ovens, enjoy made-to-order pan-Asian dishes, visit the vegan and vegetarian station, the grill or pasta station, or the salad, soup and fruit bar. Depending on the night's theme, students might be treated to lobster, a cupcake bar, a midnight buffet or a celebrity guest chef.
"Food is serious business for us and we work very hard to be sure the dining program enhances campus life for our students. At the end of the day, everything we do is to serve our students a good variety of fresh, nutritional meals in the most professional manner," says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary services, who heads up the dining program. "About five years ago, we started shifting to just-in-time food preparation campus-wide. We use local free-range turkeys, carved to order. We feature wild Alaska seafood. When we're carving beef we use the strip loin or beef tenderloin. We helped launch and maintain an award-winning organic permaculture garden and have grown our local sourcing program to comprise more than 25 percent of the produce we use. We have two professional pastry chefs and produce 80 percent of our baked goods on campus."
From a production standpoint, Toong says decentralization and keeping the majority of food preparation fresh and right in front of the customer are keys to the program's success. The only items produced in a central commissary are baked goods and grab-and-go sandwiches for retail operations. "Otherwise, everything is done in the kitchen or front of the house in the dining location."
To that end, he adds, "We give each of our facilities the latest equipment available in order to be able to execute at the level of quality that we've committed to. We know that the right tools and equipment help us perform better. From the food to the equipment, it's all about quality. We give you the best."
Newest BMOC: Baby Berk
Exceeding expectations is Toong's goal for each of the school's four residential restaurants and 25 retail outlets, as well as for the newest member of the UMass Dining family — Baby Berk. A 26-foot food truck described by Toong as "a dream kitchen on wheels," Baby Berk hit the road last fall and quickly became a much-loved campus feature.
Custom retrofitted with all new, high-efficiency foodservice equipment at a cost of $150,000, the colorful truck features a menu of gourmet burgers, fries, onion rings, tacos and New England clam chowder. The scratch-made menu features fresh ingredients from as many local and sustainable sources possible. The meat comes from New England farms and the burgers, served on buns baked fresh in the commissary, are topped with Vermont cheese and local vegetables.
Moving to different spots around campus throughout the day, Baby Berk operates from early morning to late night, says Toong, whose staff uses Facebook and Twitter to publicize Baby Berk's location. "The students really look for it," he adds. "If we're 10 minutes late getting to the spot we said we'd be, our Facebook page lights up with messages from students demanding to know, 'Where's Baby Berk??'"
Toong acknowledges UMass isn't the first university to deploy a food truck, but he says what makes Baby Berk unique is that the program was built from scratch with input from students and staff and is completely self-operated. Students regularly submit ideas and vote for favorite menu iterations on Facebook and even the truck's name is a product of student input. "We put it out to our more than 11,000 Facebook fans to come up with ideas and vote. Baby Berk, a play on the Berkshire Commons name, won."
A cash/credit/debit-only retail dining option, Baby Berk adds to the already impressive UMass Dining Services' revenue stream. "We set out from the beginning to build the food truck as an additional source of revenue, not just another dining option for the kids," Toong says. With average sales of $4,000 to $5,000 per day, he expects the truck to pay for itself within three years. A second truck, this one featuring quick-serve Asian stir-fries and steamed Chinese Bao buns, is in the works.
With Baby Berk now leading a parade of successful dining innovations at UMass, Toong and his staff continue to blow virtually every lingering campus food stereotype out of the water. They do it with a relentless focus on fresh, local, made-to-order foods; on building creative, diverse, on-trend concepts and menus; and on keeping kids engaged with a steady stream of fun, food-centered events that educate as well as nourish. It should be no surprise that more than 95 percent of the students who opt for the school's meal plan stay on it for their full four or five years. Really, who'd want to eat anywhere else?