Most undergraduates are still asleep during the early hours of the morning when many of the Harvard University Dining Services staff begin their days preparing the meals for the College’s more than 6000 students.
For those who work in the kitchens, everything has to be done in advance to make sure that all that is required for each meal is on hand. Menus have to be tested, prepared, and revised many weeks beforehand.
Despite this preparedness, being a chef in the Harvard undergraduate dining halls also means being ready for the unexpected. Sometimes, a shortage of an important ingredient means revising the menu. Entrees can become so popular that they are finished long before the meal time is over, requiring the quick creation of a replacement dish. Other times, recipes have to be rearranged after discussions in weekly meetings in order to accommodate the ever-changing tastes of the student body and make sure it’s better the next time it appears.
Preparing the meals in all of the thirteen undergraduate dining halls seven days a week requires a carefully calibrated top-down effort, but it is also work of individual chefs, working on the ground and in the kitchens of each of Harvard’s Houses. Though these chefs vary in age, prior experience, and time at the College, they collectively work to meet the unique challenge of feeding a large undergraduate population and their varied tastes.
A MEDLEY OF BACKGROUNDS
Like Harvard students, the chefs that staff House kitchens come from many diverse backgrounds. No two chefs are alike and they arrive on campus with a wide assortment of stories and family histories, like chef Ted Smith, senior chef production manager at Quincy House and Hillel, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“I worked as a corporate chef for 15 years,” Smith said. “[I worked] at country clubs, city clubs, and moved on to Boston University for a few years.”
Many of the chefs have similar paths to Smith’s, albeit with a few alterations. Chef Donn S. Leonard, senior chef production manager of the Dunster-Mather kitchens, graduated from Johnson and Wales University.
“During school I worked at ten restaurants,” Leonard said in an early April interview at Harvard University Dining Services administrative offices on Winthrop St. “After graduation, I worked at the Marriott Corporation in the Health Department and rehab centers. Then I went on to New Horizons [at] Choate, Woburn retirement home for a few years.”
Leonard arrived at Harvard’s kitchens after his sister, who had worked for Harvard at the time, recommended that Leonard should apply to work for the University as well. Leonard was hired and started to work at Lowell House in 1995.
Some of the chefs claim even farther origins than just the United States. About one third of the head chefs and sous chefs working for Harvard University Dining Services are from outside the U.S.
Andrea van Wien, a sous chef at Hillel, is from Colombia. “I grew up in the kitchen with my family. I did restaurants and catering, then I went to Le Cordon Bleu, and I did some food development. I had always admired Harvard from all areas, and someone told me it was a great place to work so I came here and applied, and now I’m proud to be here.”
Arlene Richburg, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, is the chef production manager at Adams House and has worked for HUDS for about four years. In her family, with parents who were avid cooks, she said, “food was always an intricate part of growing up.”
According to Richburg, that family background has helped her cultivate her own love of cooking and baking. Richburg said her mother told her that her first word was ‘elicious’ because she could not pronounce ‘delicious.’
Richburg noted that it was her mother’s baking under difficult financial circumstances, that has inspired her in her own cooking.
“Coming from a third-world country it is always challenging; [not] having a lot of money to work with, so you do the best you can. And [my mother] got really creative with [food] so I always just looked to that,” Richburg said.
Still, Richburg said she was not always sure that she wanted to be a chef. Only after visiting Boston on vacation in the 1990s and falling for the city did she decide to move to the area and pursue cooking. After graduating from Brookline-based Newbury College in 1994, she started working at the Museum of Fine Arts, eventually moving her way up to become chef de cuisine or head chef there.
“It was in the restaurant upstairs [in the MFA], and I just about worked at every station in [those] seven years,” Richburg said. “I [had] worked with a lot of great chefs in that environment and I had learned a lot.”
After arriving at Harvard, adjusting to the environment after working in different establishments is not always easy, HUDS senior chefs said.
“The system implemented here which we use in our daily productions is called Food Pro,” said Leonard. “And it’s a very complicated system. That was one of the hardest things I had to grasp.”
For more than 15 years, HUDS has used the program Food Pro as a tool to estimate or “forecast” the amount of food they will need each day based on the number of people they think will eat and how much. Though this helps the chefs and the food suppliers in predicting how much of each ingredient needs to be sent to each dining hall and then prepared, the initial difficulties with using Food Pro were shared with all of the chefs.
“Where I worked for 15 years prior, I could pick up the phone and call the company that I needed to order something from,” said Richburg, of his previous employer. “I placed my orders at the end of the day or faxed them my order.”
For Harvard’s dining halls, though, orders have to be placed weeks in advance. While many say they found Food Pro initially challenging, the chefs interviewed for this story say they agree that the process helps by ensuring that each dining hall does not have to order food separately each day.
“It’s kind of like our Bible,” Richburg adds. “We live by it.”
For senior chefs, who oversee the staff of each dining hall, management is a time sensitive process that has to be repeated each day.
“We’re under a lot of time tables under the course of the day, making sure certain orders get ordered at certain times of the day,” said Smith. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that all of the food that is needed to serve any particular meal is available so our cooks and staff can be in place to do their jobs.”
Though each chef arrives on campus from a different background and with a unique history, senior chefs say they have come to appreciate the particular demands and community that comes with serving students.
“Coming from healthcare to here, it is a family atmosphere,” said Leonard. “Right there in the dining hall, that is where everything goes down. It’s a family-oriented place. We try to make our students and our employees feel welcome.”
Van Wien shares Leonard’s sentiments and said she feels that the chefs are able to have a close, familial type relationship with the students.
“[Students] will share their stories, not only around the food but their lives, what they’re doing,” said van Wien. “Some students are already telling us that they are missing us but they will soon come back to visit.”
Richburg recounts similar interactions with students. She recalls a time when a student broke her ankle and was having a rough time at the beginning of the semester. Because of the student’s injury, Richburg and her team decided to help out the girl whenever they could.
“One day she just came in and hugged me and started crying, telling us how glad she that we were taking such good care of her,” said Richburg. “I told her that was what we’re supposed to do for each other.”
For Smith, the possibility of such interactions is what makes him glad that his application was accepted and that he was able to join an institution he believes is truly top-tier.
“We were all handpicked to be here and it is an honor to be here,” Smith said. “What we do here is noticed by other colleges across the world, so it’s always fun for us to be always mentioned in something, somewhere.
—Staff writer Kamara A. Swaby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SwabyK.