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Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series on the Dining Services programs at Washington University. Part two is here.
A recent visit with John Griffiths, Washington University’s Campus Executive Chef, who gave us a tour of the school’s dining options, including a behind-the-scenes look at the main commissary, left us feeling a bit like Shakespeare’s Miranda in The Tempest upon seeing men for the first time. What a brave, new world it is—not for shipwrecked innocents, but sophisticated college students (and lucky faculty and staff ) who have some amazing food options at an institution that was recently ranked among the top 5 universities in the US for best dining by The Princeton Review and the top university for food lovers by The Daily Meal.
Griffiths’ departure from Truffles restaurant for Wash. U. elicited some buzz earlier this year. Many were expecting him to open his own place, while others didn’t understand the move from an independent restaurant to a corporate entity. The transition makes sense, however, when you consider the alignment of two things. First, there’s Griffiths’ past working at restaurants where sourcing local ingredients was the norm—both at Truffles and An American Place, for Larry Forgione, a pioneer in locavorism. Second, there’s Washington University Dining Services’ partner, Bon Appétit Management Company, which is dedicated to “food service for a sustainable future.” In many ways, Griffiths continues to do what he’s always done—albeit with less time spent on the line—but for many, many more “customers.”
While he does miss cooking on a nightly basis and will probably never grow accustomed to the 40+ emails he receives an hour (who would?), Griffiths waxes serious and philosophical about his role at Wash. U.:
“This is a totally different ball of wax, but I can effect a lot of change. You look at how you can effect change in agriculture but also in the dining public in general, and restaurants can do that. But here, you know, these students are eating this food every day—three meals a day—so the more you can reinforce local, sustainable—the benefits and qualities—you’re grooming the next generation. And that’s kind of how I look at it: we mold these people for the four years while they’re here, and they step out and they’re educated—they have high standards.”
Fourteen dining outlets punctuate Wash. U.’s main and satellite campuses, and we visited a number of them on our tour. Each outlet maintains its own identity and menu. Whispers, for example, situated in the library (naturally), serves Kaldi’s coffee and Companion baked goods for students needing caffeine and carb fixes. Nearby, in the sleek, airy atrium of Lopata Hall, befitting its resident School of Engineering & Applied Science, Stanley’s (right) offers sandwiches, wraps, and salads. Another location, kept purposely off the radar, is Holmes Lounge. Griffiths explained that students are meant to find this small outlet themselves as part of their first-year experience. Tucked away in the corner of Ridgley Hall, an architectural gem built for the 1904 World’s Fair, the outlet is so popular for its soups and carved sandwiches, long lines regularly wind through the hall (we know someone who’s become so partial to the soups served there, she won’t go anywhere else on campus).
In addition to several other outlets, there are also The Servery in “The DUC” (Danforth University Center), where the main dining hall holds up to 2000 people at once, several markets, and South 40, which houses the massive commissary. Studio40, a demonstration room for cooking classes, contains a chef’s table. At the time of our visit, the Hindu festival Diwali was about to take place, and chefs were preparing tikka masala for the feast. Sona Kukal, the Campus Curry Chef, also recently taught a class on authentic Indian cuisine, and Griffiths claimed that with their own tandoori oven and Chef Sona’s skills, they offer some of the best Indian food in town.
In the middle of campus, one will find The Burning Kumquat Farm, a student-run, organic garden that provides produce to Ibby’s (above and below), the university’s full-service restaurant. Many don’t realize that one doesn’t have to be affiliated with Wash. U. to dine at the restaurant, which takes reservations through OpenTable. Thanks to Ibby’s relatively small size, nearly everything served there, including alcohol, is locally sourced. Participating farms include Yellow Wood, Berger Bluff, Kimker Hill, Double Star, Thies, and Ozark Forest Mushrooms, to name a few.
Using only local products is a bold claim for an individual to make, and many a chef or owner has had to reverse course or qualify said claim once the unfeasibility of doing so is actualized. Take local dairy products, for example. Griffiths previously worked with Greenwood Farms, which closed this year because of the economy, sourcing milk for his acclaimed burrata at Truffles. It’s particularly difficult, according to Griffiths, to source local butter and cream for high-volume establishments. While Wash. U. procures much of their produce and meat from local vendors through their “Farm to Fork” program, they can’t get everything. “What we’re trying to do is find farmers who are willing to grow certain things for us,” Griffiths explained. Selection, then, is important, but so is volume.
No one farmer can supply the university with all that it needs. The process, therefore, works “by committee,” and the relationship often begins small; at Ibby’s, for example, both sides have the opportunity to prove themselves—the farmer with his or her product and Wash. U. with its reliability in purchasing. Griffiths sees it as a win-win situation for everyone as he pitches a working relationship: “If you have an idea to do something sustainable or if you want to grow something locally that fits within our mantra and the direction we’re going, then we want to have that conversation because if it’s scale you need, that’s what we have. We can buy a lot of anything.” Toward that end, Griffiths is now consulting with Slow Food St. Louis to develop ideas on how to bring farmers to the university’s scale.
One rancher who does supply the university with most of its beef is Rain Crow Ranch, located in Doniphan, Mo. Currently, Rain Crow provides all ground beef (55,000 pounds a year) to the school, and Griffiths anticipates increasing the number by 10,000 pounds in the future with brisket and beef rounds. When commodity meat is used, Griffiths explained, there is “a lot of labor and waste in trimming the fat.” The lean nature of Rain Crow Ranch’s beef results in less waste and labor after the initial learning process. Introducing local, grass-fed, humane-certified meat into the university menu means also educating the chefs on how to cook it properly as yields and preparation times change thanks to the meat’s leaner composition.
The pork Griffiths and his chefs cook also comes from local producers, including Wenneman Meat Company and Geisert Farms. In line with its commitment to sourcing meat from animals that have been humanely raised, Bon Appétit will work only with gestation-crate-free farmers by the end of this year. “We should be fine because we’re in the middle of pork country,” Griffiths expressed on the policy. As with produce, though, he noted that they have to piece relationships together because there’s no one local supplier who can provide everything they need.
Take chicken, for instance. The outlets go through 4500 pounds of chicken a week, making it impossible to source locally. “The amount of labor it would take a farmer to raise enough chickens to fabricate all that . . . it’s not a realistic possibility right now,” Griffiths admitted. He and some of his staff worked out the following hypothetical scenario, which proves his point: they’d need an additional 40-50 people just to hand dip, bread, and fry all the chicken tenders eaten at the university. This doesn’t mean that Griffiths is giving up on local chickens: “Right now our first step is whole chickens; we know we can get whole chickens locally—frozen mostly—but at least they’re local and they’re raised well. If we can develop that connection, our next step would be to break down our chickens from the whole ones—develop a butchery program.”