Backstage with Bon Appâ€štit
Between the demands of classes, club meetings and making it to that professor’s office hours, the average Washington University student might not dedicate a lot of thought to the dining services on campus, aside from how long lunchtime lines are at Mallinckrodt.
Yet a closer consideration of the production process that we so often take for granted reveals that an incredibly elaborate system of operations – involving hundreds of employees and some very early hours – lies behind every single bite that we take on campus each day.
Bon Appâ€štit feeds 60,000 people campus-wide per week and runs the four kitchens located on campus that prepare 95 percent of the food consumed here. Devoted to providing variety, quality and nutrition, the company strives to make just about every item fresh, including each soup, salad dressing and sauce.
The Wohl Center kitchen, the largest on campus, is responsible for preparing the majority of the food available at all of the satellite units around campus, a task which relies on a remarkable blend of organization and dedication.
The Wohl Center kitchen functions by way of a diverse staff of chefs, commissary staff, management staff, dishwashers and caterers, who work various shifts throughout the day in order to continually serve the campus.
Our meals start with the commissary staff, whose days begin at 5:30 a.m. when they unload the several truckfuls of food that get delivered to the docking area six mornings per week. While these employees spend the early-morning hours unloading, organizing and separating the deliveries, later parts of the day consist of sending carefully labeled carts of products out from the docking area to other units all around campus.
One of the first shipments to go out each morning comes from the bakery, where the workday begins at midnight and shipments start just six hours later. Since the bakery has only one oven, all of the eight bakery employees must orchestrate their actions around a tight schedule: at 4 a.m. batch production begins, at 6 a.m. the pizza dough gets made, at 7 a.m. the cake decorator arrives and at 8 a.m. the two packagers begin bagging.
Although the enormous roll-in oven can bake 500 cookies at a time, the importance of efficient coordination grows clear when you consider that on a daily basis, the bakery produces 1,200 cookies, 780 muffins and 36 large loaves of banana bread.
At the same time, the bakery staff must also be flexible.
“We’re constantly readjusting what needs to be done based on what orders we get,” said bakery supervisor Louanne Lewis.
Located upstairs above the docking area, bakery and commissary storage area is the main Wohl Center kitchen. As this facility essentially supports all other dining units and catering events on campus, it depends on enlarged versions of every apparatus imaginable, from several extensive floor-to-ceiling coolers for storing food to steam-kettles that can hold 60 gallons of soup at once. Prepackaged meals are sorted into crates lining 20-foot long tables, while a huge batch of potato salad gets mixed in a humongous bowl. The kitchen’s equipment includes flat-top ovens, combi-ovens, fryers, char-broilers and a tilt skillet.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature here is the vertical cutting machine (VCM), which can chop 50 pounds of garlic at once or be used to make a massive batch of hummus.
“It’s kind of like an institutional Cuisinart,” said Kathy Carmody, the general manager of dining services.
The chefs in the main kitchen have various levels of food-handling experience. Some have attended culinary school, while others have had more informal apprenticeships. Even the food preparation staff must have ample experience in the culinary world due to the sheer volume of the food they must produce.
“You can’t train someone from scratch to make 120 gallons of soup at once,” said Executive Chef Rick Foley.
And although eight sous chefs each have a different primary responsibility, “they’re all pretty well-rounded,” said Carmody, and all have complete control over the recipes that they pursue.
Like the bakery, the procedures of the main kitchen must be carried out according to various detailed shifts, since not all of the staff can fit in the kitchen at the same time. While the team that makes soups and sauces works from 4 a.m. until noon, the crew of dishwashers and porters comes in at 4 p.m. and leave around 11 p.m. Aside from smoothly running shifts, another key element of the food production here is starting preparation early.
“You always have to be a day ahead of schedule in order to not be overwhelmed at production,” said Rick Turner, director of operations.
And it’s easy to imagine the staff getting overwhelmed, given the fact that this kitchen produces about 1,300 pounds of pasta, 150 gallons of marinara sauce and around 1,000 pounds of carvery meat each week.
In order for these activities to run smoothly, the chefs break processes into steps, such as preparing soup ingredients the day before or peeling large quantities of fruit ahead of time so that it will be ready for chopping the next day.
Given these demands, the menu that the chefs work from runs on a seven-day cycle, so that they always know what is coming up. At the same time, the chefs must be flexible, as changes are sometimes made if product movement data demonstrates that something is not selling well.
One of the major productions of this kitchen is Center Court dinner, which employs five or six cooks exclusively. Arriving around noon each day to begin preparation, some of this staff also begins making the next day’s meal during Center Court dinner hours. Organization such as this is also crucial to the catering aspect of the main kitchen, which may need to accommodate 25 catering events in one day.
Despite the careful planning that lies behind the kitchen’s production, the staff definitely encounters its fair share of obstacles. The greatest challenge is being short-staffed, especially since there are 16 different units around campus. To meet this challenge, the flexibility of the staff is crucial.
“We have a great staff,” said Carmody. “They’re very willing to go to other units and help out someplace else. You don’t get that all the time.”
In the kitchen itself, aside from the stress that accompanies the demand to prepare last-minute items, the other major challenge is equipment malfunctions. For example, an elevator may break down, forcing the caterers to carry via the staircase. Yet the staff always seems to pull through, as Turner said that they are all “real good about making adjustments.” As evidence of this trend, he recalled a recent power outage, during which the kitchen staff efficiently brought in a tractor trailor refrigerator to temporarily shelter products.
At times, the chefs encounter issues with the food itself. Foley described a recent “soup challenge” in which the soup shipped out was not yet thick enough; as a result, it had to be sent back to the kitchen and redone.
Yet Carmody is not fazed by these small obstacles.
“We’re gonna mess up,” she admitted.
Carmody and Turner encourage students to take tours of the kitchen and pose questions to Bon Appâ€štit about anything that may concern them. With the hope that students will take the opportunity to open their eyes to the effort, coordination and dedication that goes in to feeding our campus population each day, Turner insists, “We have absolutely nothing to hide.”
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