Forced to pick a favorite dining hall food item, Pomona College executive chef Travis Ellis could only narrow his list down to three: yaki soba, vegetable pizza and the Frary grain bar.
“It’s a hard question to answer,” he admitted.
The Pomona chef recently ventured out of Claremont to compete in the National Association of College and University Food Services’ Continental-Pacific Regional Conference, representing the college in Spokane, Washington from April 3 to April 5.
Ellis’ recipe — smoked pepita-rubbed venison with toasted shiitake mushroom sauce and blackberry jam — was one of the eight recipes chosen to compete in the regional conference, standing out among hundreds of other submissions from chefs of top colleges and universities.
All chefs submitting recipes were required to feature venison on their plates. Ellis said he tried hard to distinguish his menu amongst inevitably similar flavor profiles.
“For me, with the venison — even though it’s farm-raised — I thought more of wild venison,” he said. “I thought of more wild ingredients that you can find. … I was thinking about it as a foraging menu.”
Ellis was awarded a bronze medal for his dish in the pacific competition. Although it was Ellis’ first time competing at the conference, he said he didn’t feel too pressured.
“It gave me the opportunity to talk with other people in my industry, and it helped me bring better flavor profiles to the dining halls,” he said. “Really, it was just a fun thing to do. I enjoy cooking.”
Originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, Ellis graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago in 2003, and has worked in food service professionally since 2001. Before finding his way to Pomona, Ellis worked extensively with Compass Group North America, a leading food and support services company, as well as with food service directing at Hyundai’s North American Headquarters.
He oversaw Frary Dining Hall for three years before the college expanded his role to executive chef in January.
Since moving into the collegiate culinary field, Ellis said he’s learned how much he enjoys interacting with the student body.
“[At a dining hall] you get to know the students a little more; you see the same people in there all the time,” he said. “In restaurants or catering, you really only get to affect people once or twice. At a college, you have that opportunity on a daily basis, multiple times a day.”
Looking toward the next academic year, Ellis said there are promising new menus on the horizon.
“We’re working in more Asian foods — Indian, Thai, Cambodian,” he said. “That seems to be where a lot of the favorite flavors are coming from.”
With the growing amount of people forgoing meat while on campus, Ellis and his team are also aiming to incorporate more vegan and vegetarian options. Finally, Ellis also hopes to increase feedback received from students, whether in the form of suggestions, praise, criticism or requests.
When asked why Ellis chose a culinary career in the first place, he said, “Easy. I like to make people happy, and I can do that through food.”