Feeding thousands of hungry UC Davis students three meals a day for nine months is no easy feat, and no one understands that better than General Manager of Resident Dining Brenan Connolly and Resident Dining Executive Chef Andy Burtis. The Aggie spoke with Connolly and Burtis to find out what to look forward to at the dining commons this year.
The Aggie: What new dishes are you introducing this year?
Andy Burtis: At our pizza station, we are featuring farmers market pizzas for the first time this fall, which incorporates local seasonal vegetables on our pizzas. We’re making a ginger-noodle salad that we’re excited about; it’s full of vegetables and it’s a non-meat alternative for some of our dinners. It can be served with different broths to make a very nutritious noodle soup. A lot of our students like to go to Woodland to the taco truck, so we’re going to do a taco truck beef taco bar. For breakfast, we are going to be making scratch-made syrups. We think that’s a lot healthier than the syrups that are loaded with preservatives. And then we’re going to be making our pancakes from scratch for the first time. That’s going to be a challenge because everyone has their own technique, but we do have a recipe, and that’ll do away with all the processed pancake mixes we’ve been using. Our trend overall here is to go much more scratch. We don’t know what they’re putting in food these days.
How often are new dishes added to the menu?
Brenan Connolly: We’re really focusing on producing seasonal menus. The vegetables we get in during spring are very different from the vegetables we get in the fall. What Andy does is he generates a list of all the vegetables that are available in fall and he incorporates those into the fall menu. When he looks at winter, he looks at what’s available in winter and incorporates those, and the same with spring and summer. One of the things Andy really tries to do is make sure that our menu is trendy and on the cutting edge. Our students are with us 244 days of the year. If you went to the same restaurant 244 days of the year you might get a little tired of it. So our biggest challenges are making sure that our food is staying exciting, that the quality is there, that the taste profiles are there, and that the students feel like they’re getting healthy options.
How do you think UC Davis resident dining services compares to the dining programs at other universities?
Connolly: We hear from people who visit us, other colleagues or we hear from students, what distances us is our facilities, which are very nice and very inviting. It’s an easy place to socialize. We’re going after really wowing our customers day in and day out. Keeping the food fresh, trendy, [high] quality, utilizing fresh ingredients and things like the student farm and Russell Ranch- those things really differentiate us from what other universities are trying to do. I’m not saying that they’re not doing those things; a lot of them are doing those exact things. Personally, I think we execute them very well.
What theme nights can diners look forward to this year?
Burtis: We are serving a special night called “Comfort food.” Even though a lot of our students are from California, a lot of our comfort foods are coming from the deep South and the Midwest. And we have our Farm to College night in the fall and another in spring.
Connolly: We’re also doing a luau this year and the Harry Potter night. We’ve done that for the last three years and it’s getting more and more popular for students who don’t live on campus to come back. We’ll continue to do the monotony breakers that we do, like frost your own cupcake or frost your own cookie and sundae bars.
What have been some especially memorable moments that you have experienced with dining services?
Burtis: Last year we had Huell Howser out to campus. He’s a T.V. personality that does the show “California Gold.” He’s got a huge following. This was a reprise of his show he did featuring UC Davis about five years ago. He came back to campus this last spring and he had a line of people for four straight hours that came to campus just to take his tour, and then they came here for lunch. The taxpayers really have a vested interest in our campus, and they love to come here and dine with the students. We get groups from China, Japan, all over; they come over and instead of taking them out to lunch somewhere, the professors or heads of department take them to Segundo and Tercero and they eat right along with the students, and they just love it.
What do students not know about resident dining that they should?
Connolly: We really need constructive feedback from the residents because we will change things. That’s one thing I wish the students would feel, [that they can come] to management and give real honest constructive feedback. Saying the food sucks doesn’t really help. If they said the dish last night wasn’t very flavorful or it was very salty, that’s something Andy can work with. We feel strongly about the fact that the students’ experience on campus during freshman year is critical for their success on campus in their four years of college, so we’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure a student feels like they can stay on campus, live in the residence halls and be able to eat in the dining facilities.
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.