(Top, l. to r.) Stan Babula, Purchasing & Facilities Mgr.; Heidi Brousseau, Dining Hall Mgr.; Randy Robichaud, Sous Chef; Patrick Brideau, Exec. Chef; Debbie Riso, Dining Hall Mgr.; Roberta Jameson, Office Asst.; Melinda Leonard, GM; Monica Torrisi, Sous Chef; David P. Davidson, Dir. of Dining Services; Cindy Jerge, Catering Mgr.; Elaine White, Business Mgr., Liz Lucas, Retail Mgr.
EXETER AT A GLANCE. (top to btm.) Wetherell Dining Hall, Roasted Chicken with Red Skins, Director David P. Davidson.
DIY ENHANCED BY THE BATCH. Small batch cooking has helped to reduce food waste and ensures that offerings are seen by customers as having been freshly prepared.
THE SPECIALS. (top to bottom) The International Dinner highlights foods from around the globe. After Davidson was given the green light to improve the annual graduation lunch, students and parents enjoyed foods from six buffet lines. Students enjoy a mix-it-up meal where they meet and greet new students.
GRILLED. Students seeking foods not offered in the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls can visit Exeter's Retail location—The Grill (l). A group of culinary minded students learn the art of bread making in a "Baking with Cindy" cooking class (above).
The transformation of college dining from the stodgy dining cafeterias and steam tables of yesteryear to the contemporary, community building, retail environments of today is an old story in the higher education segment.
The Ivy leagues were often some of the last bastions to have undergone these changes. While academe once was the primary draw for students, residential life is increasingly a concern. In response, many of the top tier schools have committed themselves to upgrading, renovating and modernizing their dining programs.
As this trend makes its way further downstream, these same changes are being adopted by private secondary schools, some with their own "Mr. Chips" traditions. Case in point: Phillips Exeter Academy in NH.
Committed to modernizing its dining services, in 2004 Exeter hired David Davidson, a veteran of college foodservice well known for his earlier work as director of foodservice at Yale and for having served as associate director at Harvard. In accepting the Exeter position, Davidson faced many familiar—and many new—challenges.
"Students eat with us during a key developmental period of their lives. It's our job to go beyond what is expected of us to prepare these students for the next phase," says Davidson.
"Exeter is a life-changing experience. It asks a great deal from every student—higher standards, greater expectations, and deeper engagement not only in the world of ideas, but also in the life of the community."
At Exeter, a student's success is contingent upon adequate nutrition, sleep and physical activity. Davidson seeks to have a dining program that fulfills these needs. As director, he has set out on an ambitious initiative to strengthen this livinglearning community.
The result: Where chipped beef once reigned supreme, a mouthwatering menu now touts cranberry apple pancakes, homemade barley bean and vegetable soup, sautï¿´´ed bok choy, edamame Provencal, organic yogurt with local fruit when available, organic whole wheat bread baked in-house daily and homemade apple, cheese and raspberry danishes.
"Students here don't have the same opportunities for outside activities that college students have. There aren't many restaurants within walking distance. They rarely have off-campus jobs. We have to keep this community interesting and exciting for them, and foodservice needs to play a key role in doing that," says Davidson.
Summed up, the Exeter program must provide food that tastes and looks good to an often picky and highly demanding demographic; maintain customer interest with seasonal menu changes, special events, and culinary classes; and provide a healthy and balanced menu that meets the comprehensive wellness requirements that Exeter has put in place.
Top Down Meets Harkness
When Davidson was hired as director, dining services had a tradition of top down management—one he felt was inefficient and somewhat at odds with the school's collaborative education philosophy.
Paralleling the school's celebrated Harkness Method [see sidebar] Davidson restructured the operation to have more decision making power and program ownership at the staff level.
"The current environment supports and attracts higher caliber chefs and managers," says Executive Chef Patrick Brideau. When Davidson joined the school, one of his first moves was to give Brideau more autonomy and to hire additional sous chefs for the school's two dining halls. The kitchen staff and dining hall managers were also given more specific responsibilities.
Empowering his staff and providing them with the proper tools have been critical to growing the business. They have also elevated the overall morale of the department, thus upping the quality of the foods and services it provides.
"The team had great ideas," says Davidson, "but no one was soliciting those ideas. We didn't need to completely rebuild the program from scratch. We just needed to enhance what we were already doing, making better use of the team in place."
When he initiated an open-door idea policy, Davidson released a hailstorm of creativity. "It used to be me putting new ideas on the table," he says. "Now, it's the staff."
Building A Brand Around People
Given the nature of Exeter as compared with a public school system, there is a great deal more flexibility. More focus can—and in a boarding environment, must—be put on the quality of the product as well as the promotions, nutrition education and the dining experience.
Special events were never a significant piece of the dining puzzle at Exeter. Now there are dozens of dining services events throughout the year, ranging from monthly birthday celebrations and pumpkin carvings to karaoke-pizza night and the Annual Jazz Brunch.
Culinary programs such as Chef's Corner [see sidebar] and a "Baking with Cindy" class have elevated the celebrity status of both Brideau and the department's head baker, Cindy Amabile. "We're building a brand around our people," says Davidson. "Pat and Cindy are superstars!"
The educational programs have also enhanced the role of dining services from being merely a foodservice provider to playing a part-time role as educator. Students who wish to have the opportunity to work alongside Brideau, helping plan and prepare events such as the Caribbean Smoothie night, the Asian Festival, La Alianza's dinner, or the International Festival.
"We focus on customer satisfaction," says Davidson. "We have created a department where the quality of food and service is essential. A department where our team members know the names of our students, faculty and staff. A department that can help the academy take care of our high school age students who are living away from home. We help the parents of our students feel good about their lives here, knowing that we are taking care of the kids nutritionally, educating them about more than academics and providing them with a fun and community-building dining experience."
Focus on the Food
Combined, Exeter's two dining halls serve over 3,500 meals each day to over 1,500 students, faculty and staff from throughout the U.S. and 26 countries worldwide. That includes catering to a variety of religious and ethnic traditions.
"We are committed to meeting the increased culinary sophistication and wide-ranging tastes of our student body with diverse menus that emphasize wholesome, healthful foods," says Davidson. Quality, variety, and authenticity are of utmost importance. In fact, if Davidson can't get the quality he requires, he won't offer the product. One example: during his initial job interviews, Davidson recalls that lackluster pizza was a complaint voiced by many of his interviewers.
Davidson took that pizza off the menu as one of his first acts on the job. "I set a precedent: We will not offer something that was not acceptable to our customers," he says.
The alternative pizza developed to replace it now features organic whole wheat pizza dough, made in the school's bake shop, with gourmet-style toppings like wild mushroom, feta and artichoke or caramelized onions and sausage.
"The pizza's back and it's more flavorful and more nutritious than ever before," says Brideau.
Similarly, Exeter's catering operation has also undergone major changes. At the school's commencement lunch, dining services used to give away a boxed ‘lunch' after the ceremony. It was a typical menu of pre-wrapped sandwiches, a bag of chips and drink.
"As I watched parents and the students who have invested a great deal of time and money into this institution juggle a boring little sandwich I questioned the message we were sending them away with," says Davidson. "This would be the last ‘meal' they ate with us. Shouldn't it be spectacular?"
Davidson met with members of the academy about the upcoming commencement lunch.
"We had six buffet lines, with all the fabulous food the students are used to eating," says Davidson. "It was a lot of work on our part, but now we've set a standard."
It's a standard that crosses all foodservice platforms.
There are no formal meal plans or lunch tickets at Exeter. All meals are available for board and day students, staff, faculty and faculty family members. That is, meals are part of tuition for all students. (Meals are also part of the benefit package for staff, faculty and faculty family members.)
In true Harkness fashion "students are regularly involved in the decision-making process for new food options," says Jef Fellows, class of ‘62, and chief financial officer. "In discussions about food, wellness, and the future of the dining programs, students are at the table. They are part of this community. David recognizes the importance of their opinions."
Wellness: Part of the Conversation
In the Exeter environment, the school's wellness policy touches on more than just breakfast and lunch. From dawn to dusk, the school strives to maintain high wellness standards. Its two primary goals are to provide, campus-wide, a variety of healthful foods based on national guidelines and to include students as part of the decision-making process regarding the food options they have.
"Dining Services has arranged regular planning meetings with key personnel to ensure that the goals of the wellness policy are met," says Exeter's ietitian, Pamela Stuppy, R.D. For example, she meets with Brideau once a week to analyze the base menu and when developing the wellness policy, Stuppy worked closely with Davidson.
At each meal, vegan and/or vegetarian entrï¿´´es are available, in addition to low fat entrï¿´´es, high fiber grains (breads, cereals), and low fat milk/yogurt/baked goods. Soy milk, rice milk and lactose free milk are always available.
Because the boarding school environment literally pervades student life from morning to night, Exeter has a greater opportunity to educate students about the role food, nutrition play in all aspects of life. "Students at this age tend to think they are invincible," says Stuppy. "We, as educators, must instill a sense of reality in them. David has enabled me to be much more connected with dining services. His enthusiasm for healthy foods has also rubbed off on his staff. Where nutrition wasn't typically part of the conversation in the past, it now is."
Community is the Cornerstone
All of Davidson's efforts—from transforming the management model to better food to recognizing special dining interests and introducing wellness initiatives—have resulted in an atmosphere that is more community-oriented and health minded.
"Exeter pushes students to think, discuss, question and analyze everything with which they come in contact," says Davidson. "These students are taught to have high expectations and they bring those expectations to the table."
Exeter's living-learning community recognizes this and looks to nourish the minds and expectation of its students. It's dining program plays an integral role in academics, in social behaviors and in physical development. For Exeter, food does more than merely nourish the body. It socializes—and civilizes—it as well.
Have a Seat
In 1930, philanthropist edward harkness wrote to exeter's principal, directing how a substantial donation might be used: "what i have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up."
The result was a unique philosophy in which a teacher and a group of students work together, exchanging ideas and information, around a table. and in the 1930s, the approach represented a revolutionary change in the traditional way that secondary school students were taught.
The tables first used by the school were modified and refined several times, always with the goal of better facilitating face-toface intimate exchanges between students and their instructors. what finally emerged was the classic oval table design now used in all exeter classrooms, one that has since become an exeter trademark. (too large to fit through the door, each table is constructed within its designated classroom.)
Now, over 70 years later, the same tables are used as an integral part of what has come to be known as the harkness Method.
Food For Thought
One of amanda Miland's earliest memories was learning how to roll grape leaves at her mother's kitchen table when she was three. That began a love affair with food that followed her to exeter where, as a freshman, she found to her dismay that she no longer had a culinary outlet.
That is, of course, until executive Chef Patrick brideau started hosting monthly culinary demonstrations to showcase new ways of preparing, eating and thinking about foods. (think Iron Chef meets school special event without the strict time limits or the witty commentary.) As is par with everything exeter, brideau decided to include the students in the action.
H put a call out to the student body, looking for assistant executive chefs "for a day." Interested students had to answer two questions in essay format: why would you make the best assistant executive chef? And what is your favorite five ingredient recipe?
"For some, words are the best form of communication. For me, it's crepe suzettes or an ice cream pie," Miland said in her essay. "Since I've left home, I've never been so far out of my culinary comfort zone. I don't have my favorite spatula here! when I received the email about an opportunity to be an assistant chef for the chef's corner, my heart leapt!"
Each month dozens of essays beg brideau to ‘choose me!'
"It's difficult to pick between the kids," says brideau. "They are all so eager to help out in whatever way they can."