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The Making of a Meal

The Making of a Meal

Sodexo Sous Chef Antione Brown prepares a meal in the Monson Dining Center kitchen.

College food has sometimes been the brunt of bad jokes. For some, it brings up thoughts of late-night pizza or one too many Mountain Dews.

But for Sodexo—Bethel’s on-campus dining services provider since 1982 (except for a brief break in the 1990s)—feeding the Bethel community employs a constant mix of creativity, science, and healthy innovations. And while pizza (the fresh, brick-oven kind) and Mountain Dew are still options, students have a bevy of health-conscious, gourmet choices at their fingertips, with apps and websites and a whole culinary staff dedicated to keeping flavors fresh and students educated.

Sodexo Chefs Clark Knutson and Justin Kaderlik dished on what it takes to keep so many people full, and so many palates happy, day after day.

The first ingredient is long, busy days. The baking staff arrives at 4 a.m. most days to create the from-scratch delicacies dreamed up by the on-site master baker—a rarity for kitchens like Bethel’s. Three cooks show up at 5:30 a.m. to work on hot food preparation for the seven distinct Monson Dining Center food stations. There are two types of soup—with batches of 30–40 gallons each—made from scratch each day, and “it’s almost unbelievable how much chicken we go through,” says Knutson. (It’s about a ton a week, if you’re wondering, and two new rotisseries were installed this year as part of Sodexo’s extended contract agreement.)

In addition to the hot food preparations, three “cold kitchen” staffers prepare salads and sandwiches—for the Dining Center and Simply-to-Go cases across campus—as well as chop items for the salad bar and top off dry goods. By 8 a.m. there’s a team of 20-24 in the kitchen, running at full steam. “Students show up whether our staff is ready or not,” says Kaderlik. “It’s a full-on run out of the gate every single day. Chef Clark doesn’t have an easy gig!”

“It’s a huge production,” agrees Knutson. He estimates that during the academic year it takes around 50 full-time Sodexo employees, plus another 100 student employees (ahem—they’re hiring for the fall) to create three meals a day, seven days a week, in planning cycles that run four weeks at a crack. The only exception to the workflow is Saturday mornings: the college crowd prefers a later morning brunch option. All told, Knutson leads a team that serves approximately 2,500 meals each weekday and 1,200 each on Saturdays and Sundays.

Kaderlik notes that while some fads come and go—like the recent peak in Atkins- and Paleo-friendly eating—there’s been a consistent preference toward healthier eating of late, and Sodexo is on the forefront of offering new-and-improved options. “This is not just a trend toward healthy eating,” Kaderlik says. “This is a long-term movement.”

“In the three years I’ve been here, there’s been an ongoing trend toward wholesome and healthy, mindful eating,” says Knutson. His team is also noticing many more requests for allergen- or gluten-free items and more satisfying ways to accommodate vegetarian and vegan diets. “Students are much more concerned about healthy and customizable options.” To that end, Sodexo offers several build-your-own meal lines in the dining center—from stir fries to sandwiches to pasta dishes created on-demand from students’ favorite grains, veggies, and proteins—and they’re among the most popular and least wasteful options. “We’re really on the front end of tailoring food to our students,” says Knutson.

Sodexo is also mindful of the amount of food that’s made versus what’s sold and what’s thrown away, and there’s an ongoing process of evolving the menu to reflect that information. Sodexo recycles as much food packaging as possible, and perishable food waste is sent away to feed local pigs. Soon, in partnership with a student group, a food rescue initiative will package fresh leftovers for a local food shelf.

“We really try to leave as little of a footprint as possible,” says Knutson. Periodic food waste monitoring—and even awards handed out to the “Clean Plate Club”—keep students informed about their choices and practical ways to make a difference. Individual choices add up to a community-wide impact, and the needle is moving. It’s another way that the Bethel community can care for creation and responsibly steward the resources its been given.

“Bethel is a unique place. The faculty, staff, students—there’s just a different vibe,” says Kaderlik. “It’s truly like you’re a part of a family. You don’t see that outside these four walls. That sense of community and belonging—it’s very rare.” Both Knutson and Kaderlik respond to that atmosphere by championing change themselves and stopping to ask for frequent feedback from the community.

“I’m always excited when we introduce new concepts and recipes,” says Knutson. “I’m always excited to interact with students, explain new concepts, and get their honest feedback. That’s the highlight of my day. This is not like an office job—that’s why I like it!”

Find out more about Dining Services at Bethel, or submit a comment for the Sodexo team.