Posted by Matt Choi
King crab and amaranth salad, apricot glazed pork belly, saut??ed trumpet mushrooms, you could be forgiven for thinking this was the menu at a downtown restaurant, but it's actually part of the menu prepared by Skidmore Dining Hall chefs for January's American Culinary Federation (ACF) Culinary Competition.
Skidmore chefs Paul Karlson, Kelly Zimmerman, Scott Carey, and Frank Esposito took home a gold medal for the first time in eight years of participation in the competition. Most would think an award-winning chef would take their talents to the glamorous world of restaurants and hotels, but the ACF award speaks to the ability of Skidmore's Dining hall to attract and nurture top culinary talent.
"It's a very attractive industry when you can work in a college environment and still have a family life," said Mark Miller, Director of Dining Services.
For chefs trying to make it in the restaurant world, it means arriving at work in the afternoon and not leaving until late at night. It means working on weekends and holidays, not ideal for spending time with your kids. These benefits were echoed by members of Skidmore's ACF team.
"Quality of life has a huge impact on us here, in a very positive way," said Production Manager Frank Esposito. "I know when my days off will be," said Chef Zimmerman, "and there are usually two of them." These benefits, standard in much of the working world but not always in the fast paced culinary world, is one way Miller says Skidmore attracts top talent to Skidmore's kitchens. Miller, as well as seven of his managers, have culinary arts degrees from top schools like the Culinary Institute of America.
What does this talent mean for the student dining experience? Karlson touched on the educational benefits the staff can take back to their everyday jobs. "You get to refine things, see new industry standards." Carey echoed this sentiment. "You get to see new trends, what's trending upward. When I went to the [ACF] competition at UMass they had this whole Mediterranean theme so I was able to bring some of that knowledge back here."
Trends don't just refer to taste issues. Everyone interviewed for this article espoused new standards in health and environmental responsibility. Esposito highlighted the unique relationship between an educated student body and educated food professionals. "You guys know what's going on with the food source, the environment, the country," s Esposito said. "Our job is to bring that to your attention as well by going out and getting educated about food."
According to Espositio, one of the roles of the chefs is to apply their expertise and knowledge to student tastes and concerns. Karlson, who has worked at Skidmore since before the existence of the new Dining Hall, pointed to gradual changes in portion size, nutritional value, and environmentally friendly ingredient sourcing as examples of Dining Service's response to student concerns about food.
The ACF gold medal is part of a longer narrative of improved meal options at Skidmore dating back to the 2008 renovation of the Dining Hall. Dining has been identified as the administration's top quality of life concern for students, and a major admissions factor. Miller said that he had heard of instances where the Dining Hall had been the make or break factor in a student's admissions decision.
Of course Gold Medal's mean nothing to students if their daily meal isn't good. Luckily, for Dining Services the proof seems to be in the pudding. When talking about the Dining Hall's napkin suggestion board, Miller remarked "They're all very positive... its all, 'can we get this,' or 'this was great let's get this more often."'