Frank Dining Hall Executive Chef Justin McGruder and Sustainable Food Coordinator Samantha Meyer PO ’10 held the first “Food Focus Group” meeting with students in Frank’s Blue Room Tuesday during dinner.
McGruder appealed to the whole student body to help formulate a set of changes for Frank.
“Things fall off the radar, what students want and think is cool, so I want to ask you guys and figure it out,” he said. “Please be vocal, give me feedback. I can’t make change out of grumblings.”
McGruder opened with some suggestions of his own, such as introducing more vegetarian and vegan options besides simple foods like cheese ravioli, as well as including dishes with tofu options and made-to-order salads. He is working with Meyer to keep the program sustainable and “to make the system as good as possible,” he said.
He also said he feels students have been “stir-fried to death” and that there was not enough weekly variation in the menu. To alleviate these problems, he proposed more varied dishes for the Exhibition section, such as salads featuring local fruits and vegetables, and desserts such as crepes and cherries jubilee.
McGruder has worked for the University of La Verne, Soka University, and Claremont McKenna College. He also has experience in the fine dining industry, having worked at Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas. His specialty is Asian fusion, and he plans to bring home-made sushi—a dish he excelled at preparing in cultinary school—to Frank.
Influenced by his fine dining experience, McGruder strives to bring “simple and clean” dishes to 5C dining halls. “So many years of sauces and muck, things like turkey tetrazzini and chicken pot pie” made him steer away from heavier, less healthy culinary styles. He said he wants Exhibition dishes to have two or three well-selected main ingredients, citing a recent eggplant and tuna dish as an example of the type of food he aims to serve more often.
McGruder and Meyer met with local farmers to discuss the ingredients they had to offer and plan meals around those possibilities. McGruder said that “small, not-as-pretty, but so delicious” apples are in season and will soon arrive at Frank. One of his ideas for dessert is caramel apples with crumbled cookie toppings.
Frank will feature a local farmer each month, and McGruder wants to involve the farmers in the process of serving their produce, he said.
“This is the local stuff, often picked the day before we serve it. There are beans being picked for us right now for tomorrow,” McGruder said.
Farmers might even visit the dining hall, where they would display the ingredients they provide, talk to students, and enjoy the prepared food.
McGruder also said local fruits and vegetables simply taste better and make for healthy meals.
“A bit of salt or sugar is all I need,” he said. “Why bother with local if you just fry it or drench it in sauce? Keep the ingredients identifiable, let them do their own work.”
He also mentioned a desire to make more items from scratch.
“The kitchen boss told me to challenge everybody,” McGruder said. He has already introduced made-from-scratch salad dressings. In addition, Frary Chef Stein Amland makes homemade granola that appears at both dining halls.
McGruder said he agreed with students who asked for Thai and Indian food, especially as effective vegetarian options. He also agreed that the crpes and fresh berries dish is popular, but he said that a preposterous $1,200 worth of berries disappeared in an hour when servings were unregulated. He added that “cereal is the most expensive thing at the dining hall” at $60 per 16-box case, and that he wanted to fine-tune the cereal he bought to avoid wasting money.
McGruder said that Monday “burrito night” at Frary seemed very popular and that Frank would continue to serve Mexican food at the same frequency. He added that fish tacos were scheduled to be served as well.
Students said they enjoyed having already-cooked chicken breasts at the grill station. McGruder responded that there had been some health code issues with that arrangement at other dining halls, but said he will serve chicken in the same manner as it is currently served at Frary. He said he wanted to ensure that there was neither a long wait for, nor an unappetizing pile of, chicken breasts at the grill.
McGruder said that flavored yogurt would begin to supplement the plain yogurt currently available, but that flavors were limited because only vanilla and strawberry could be bought in bulk. Meyer said that she and McGruder had discussed the option of flavoring the plain yogurt at Frank, which would provide for more flavor possibilities.
Students suggested a coffee machine for lattes, like the ones at CMC’s Collins and HMC’s Hoch-Shanahan dining halls. He said this was a possibility and even suggested a “coffee bar” with fresh espresso, lattes, and all the flavorings and extras one would expect. Later, he brought up the possibility of serving boba drinks like milk tea or Thai iced tea as a dessert, something he said “won’t be too difficult at all.”
Finally, McGruder wanted to stress that no change was too small to enact. At one of McGruder’s past work places, he said, one girl simply wanted plates next to the toaster so that she did not have to walk to get a plate for her toast—a request he happily granted. He said small conveniences like that can make all the difference in a dining hall’s appeal.
Future “Food Focus Group” meetings are tentatively scheduled for Tuesday dinners in Frank Blue Room every other week, and might showcase new local produce and new dishes in addition to facilitated discussion. McGruder also said he plans to move the comment board closer to the dish return area so it is more accessible, and personally reply to posted comments. Furthermore, he said he plans to update the “What’s New” sign at the entrance to Frank more frequently.
McGruder stressed that he welcomes feedback and wants to adjust Frank’s offerings to the desires of the students.
“There will be challenges involved, but nothing’s out of the range of doable, we just have to be creative,” he said. “This is your program. Tell me what you want and we’ll make it happen.”