John Marsh, AVI’s Director of Sustainability for Kenyon College, is responsible for locating, purchasing, coordinating and transporting nearly all of our local food, but once it gets to the dining hall, the burden of responsibility shifts to the chefs and other AVI employees. For example, the workers at the deli line are in direct contact with the local produce all day, and the amount of local food to which the students have access depends on what they serve. The flexibility that is so important throughout production, processing and distribution is also critical in the preparation of our local food. The focus in our kitchen is on fresh, healthy meals that take advantage of the high quality of the locally produced food.
Marsh believes that the most important support for a local food system must come from the chefs. We are extremely fortunate that our Executive Chef, Meagan Worth-Cappell, believes in the local food program and is willing to work with Marsh to make it as effective as possible. If the people who are planning menus and preparing the food for students are unwilling to work with local food, or if they are unaware of how the program works, the program will not grow, no matter how much local food is available in the area.
All managerial positions at Kenyon are filled by chefs, so that there is as much culinary experience as possible in the kitchen. Two of our chefs also take on positions that might be filled by managers who are not chefs. For example, as executive chef, Worth-Cappell is also responsible for creating menus and ensuring that the budget stays balanced. As our director of operations, Walter Miller’s responsibilities include shift scheduling and other personnel issues. When the managers are also chefs, they are better equipped to accommodate food preparation and the use of local foods in the dining hall. We currently employ five chefs, and by placing chefs in managerial positions, we are able to keep more chefs on staff because we do not employ a manager without culinary training.
The experience and training of our chefs is also key: all of our chefs are restaurant-trained. Their restaurant experience makes them more familiar with working with fresh food than a chef who has only worked in dining service might be. However, dealing with the fresh food that we use in Peirce is more variable than the use of fresh food in a restaurant. Marsh often delivers a large quantity of a particular item, and chefs must be able to think on their feet to prepare the food, whereas restaurants generally have fixed menus and an established selection of food in the kitchen.
Marsh also makes efforts to be as communicative as possible with the chefs on a daily basis. He keeps a large bulletin board in the prep kitchen that lists the details of the local food system. It is divided by day and includes information about when he picks up produce from certain farmers and when local products will be delivered. This way the chefs always know when to expect a new lot of vegetables or delivery of cheese, and they can plan their menus accordingly.
Our program also fundamentally changes the way the dining hall procures food. The executive chef is usually solely responsible for acquisition from industrial distributors, often using computer-based ordering systems. In our program, however, Marsh takes responsibility for a large portion of the acquisition, and the chefs must trust him to follow through and provide what they need. Marsh works closely with the chefs to help them better understand how the local food system works and why it is so important that they support it. Every spring he takes the chefs on a tour of some of our suppliers so that they can meet the vendors and see first-hand where the local food comes from. Over time, Marsh has built up a stock of yellow plastic bins that he lends to vendors, in which they pack their food. These bins can contain anything from broccoli or tomatoes, to fresh bread, to chicken or pork. By clearly and consistently identifying the local items in the coolers this way, Marsh makes it easier for the chefs to use local food more strategically because it is easier to identify.
Marsh’s communication with the chefs is not only informational; he also keeps their requests in mind. As in our mutually beneficial relationships with vendors, Marsh builds trust with the chefs by accommodating their needs whenever possible. These requests can be anything from more of a certain type of fruit to a special ingredient for a catering event or new recipe. Marsh then asks his producers if they have any of the requested items or, more often, looks for it at the produce auction.
There are, of course, personnel challenges in the system as well. One of the biggest is chef turnover. Because chefs are so integral to the program, it can be time-consuming and frustrating to begin working with a new chef who is unfamiliar with the program’s goals. Our system is complex and particular, and most chefs are not used to working in this type of system. They have to adjust to working with a smaller inventory, especially of produce; they have to trust that Marsh will bring in the food they need in time for particular meals. There is usually a period of adjustment when new chefs are still learning to utilize the available local food. As our program grows, however, and local food use becomes more ingrained in how we do things here, the transition will hopefully become smoother.
Dining service employees also need to be educated about local foods in the dining hall. AVI’s staff includes prep cooks, workers in the deli line and salad bar, and workers in the servery and dining rooms. AVI workers have constant contact with the local food, and they often regulate how much local food is actually made available to students. For example, the workers who replenish the fruit in the servery can choose to put out local apples or oranges from Florida and California. While it’s necessary to provide a variety of fruit to students, it’s also important to provide a local option when possible. Before the beginning of each school year, Howard Sacks gives a presentation during annual staff training about the significance of local food in the dining hall and in the community. Many of the AVI workers are farmers themselves, so this information encourages them to be more enthusiastic about the local food in the dining hall.