Food draws special curiosity, because everyone is uniquely expert in what they like to eat. Many, even, are highly successful home cooks or chefs. So on the one hand, you know exactly what we could be doing to make you happy at dinner. On the other hand, how do we make thousands of people happy simultaneously?
Preparing 25,00 meals a day (in 27 dining venues and campus catering) requires extensive coordination. And an army of trained culinarians and customer service professionals. And recipes and menus.
Every item we serve is based on a recipe, entered into a special computer program that helps:
- scale the recipe and predict how many portions to prepare based on previous consumption and expected diners at a specific meal
- identify ingredients to be ordered
- analyze ingredients and produce nutritional content information
- and track how much was served
We work from cycle menus (daily menus with either weekly or monthly repetition), which provide the basis for all our food planning and sourcing. Our procurement department scours vendors for the appropriate products, of the right quality and quantity, with suitable pricing, for every item we need. We establish relationships that ensure vendors will carry ingredients or make items we want, when we want them. For example, we coordinate with a local bakery to make many of our desserts on a specified schedule (750 Boston cream pies requires some pre-planning!). Then those vendors deliver those ingredients or items on specified days, so that we have a constant rotation of the freshest foods possible.
Ingredients are carefully managed for food safety as they move from delivery to storage, and HUDS employees are ever mindful of temperature, environment controls, and cross-contamination. Every member of our staff is trained in proper food handling techniques, and our Culinary Support Group has even received the highest food-handler’s certification possible – HACCP or Hazard Assessment and Critical Control Point management.
So what of this mythic central kitchen at Harvard? It does exist, but with a very specific job. HUDS’ Culinary Support Group (CSG) is a high-technology kitchen, employing large-scale food production tools to achieve efficiencies and consistency, while leaving the significant cooking to your local team. At the CSG, we make all the soups and sauces, about 500 gallons at a time, because they are both labor and flavor intensive, and they are most successful and least wasteful when prepared in volume. We then break those batches down into single meal-period volumes (1-2 gallons), use a rapid chiller to cool them down to a safe temperature, and redistribute them for use within the next day or so. [They also have a few tools that help us marinate, mix, slice and dice as efficiently as possible. The CSG often prepares ingredients for local use, such as chopping peppers or mixing salads (we call this mise en place).
With the exception of those items indicated above, all other food preparation happens at the dining hall, restaurant, or catering kitchen. Each location manages an inventory of goods (we have roughly 5,000 active ingredients in our system), ordering, receiving and rotating them for peak freshness. In the undergraduate dining halls, at any given meal there will be:
- 15 to 25 featured items to prepare, such as entrees, sides, soups, pastas and desserts
- 20 grill items available upon request
- 20-25 salad bar items
- 20-25 deli bar items
- 20 basic food bar items (condiments)
- 12 cereals
- 2 frozen yogurts
- and a range of beverages
Many of our retail locations have a similar “to-do” list, though on a slightly smaller scale.
In some cases, it is simply a matter of keeping foods stocked and fresh. For others, such as entrees, we batch cook. In other words, we make a limited number of portions, and then cook again when the previous servings are almost finished. Our computer models help us predict how many portions to prepare for any given 15 minute period, so that the food is always as fresh.
It helps that many of our managers are graduates of prestigious restaurant and culinary schools, and have worked in well-respected restaurants, contract foodservice companies, and elegant hotel and catering companies. Our staff comes from a range of educational experiences and backgrounds – military, restaurants, other schools, or even professional careers after which this is a second job. While they’re with us, they are trained in food safety, Red Cross personal safety, culinary methods, and customer service.
To seamlessly bring those 25,000 meals a day to you, HUDS has a small team of professionals expert in support areas so that we can: hire an experienced and professional team and train them (human resources); source all our foods (procurement); keep the technology running (IT); pay the bills (finance); conduct market research and communicate the program (marketing); keep the facilities running lean and green (physical plant); and appropriately plan new programs or buildings (planning and analytics).
As I said, we take pride in setting the table both literally and figuratively for this campus. In future posts I’ll share more about some of our more strategic programs – such as efforts to help our campus reduce carbon emissions, or the Food Literacy Project’s efforts to make dining a more deeply felt awareness experience.
But the next time you sit down to dinner – at your home, in the dining hall, in a restaurant, or at an event for 1,000 people – I hope you’ll dig into the meal with a new view on what it took to fill that plate.