A decade ago when research began to disclose students’ increasing concerns with health, wellness and sustainability, Yale Hospitality listened and then got innovative — with vegetables.
“It was all about health and wellness benefits and sustainability,” says Adam Millman, executive director of auxiliary operations at Yale Hospitality. “It’s exciting. It’s different. It’s not just pasta and red sauce.”
The foodservice provider for Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale Hospitality started with small steps, at first increasing plant-based foods on its menus by about 30 percent. Today, 84 percent of menus at the Ivy League university’s 12 residential dining locations are plant-based.
Perhaps the menu item which has generated the most excitement so far has been Yale’s mushroom burger, a blend of finely chopped roasted mushrooms and ground beef, herbs and spices. Developed in 2013 in conjunction with the U.S. Mushroom Council, the popular burger has made appearances on the menu over the years.
“An alternative to meat had often been a big Portobello mushroom,” says Millman. “[The mushroom burger] was a natural progression. It’s incredibly juicy [and] high in flavor.”
The mushroom burger was not only a big hit on the Yale campus, but is credited with, at least in part, having inspired the addition of burgers using mushroom and meat blends to menus at other universities, major U.S. foodservice operations and even chain restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory and Seasons 52.
While chefs at fine dining restaurants often get the most credit for creating industry innovations, college and university dining operations like Yale Hospitality are proving that innovation isn’t exclusive to a single segment.
“College and university dining has been instrumental in setting trends for so many years and people didn’t realize it,” says Millman. “[We] have that next group of diners with disposable incomes. We have the opportunity to influence flavors, menu choices.”
Among the other innovative plant-based options Yale offers as part of the more than 14,000 meals it serves each day are such dishes as pasta with vegan velouté, a version of the classic French sauce prepared with pureed white beans; squash “ribs”, made of thick-cut acorn squash coated in barbecue sauce; and vegetable charcuterie featuring items such as beet “salami”.
In addition to the satisfaction of seeing its culinary creations evolve into broader trends, Yale also has been recognized as a groundbreaker by industry watchers. Most recently, Rafi Taherian, the head of foodservice operations at Yale since 2008, and his culinary team were named the 2016 recipients of the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association’s Gold Plate award.
Part of the award-winning team at Yale Hospitality is Ron DeSantis, director of culinary excellence, who describes the process of innovation as “… looking deeper and harder and then pushing the envelope. We think of it as having fun with food [by] exciting ourselves with new flavor combinations.”
Yale is also exploring other menu innovations, such as reclaiming ingredients that might otherwise be thrown away. Those include okara, or soy pulp, a powder that is the high-protein byproduct of making tofu; leftover malt and other spent grains from the beer making process; and nutrient-dense broccoli leaves, which are traditionally left in the field after harvesting.
And that groundbreaking mushroom burger? In its most recent reimagining it’s smashed on the grill for maximum char and served with a custom sauce on a brioche bun. The culinary team is also applying the mushroom-meets-meat success to other favorite meat dishes, such as meatloaf and turkey burgers.
In the meantime, serious carnivores need not despair. They can still find meat on menus at Yale, just in smaller sized portions served as accents to other plant-based items.
“Give people great things that are better for them,” says DeSantis. “It’s just the right, professional way to do things.”
While campus dining has not always been this creative, an increasing number of college and university foodservice operators are making innovation an integral part of their mission and vision.
“Ten or 20 years ago our role was to feed our students. Now our role has to be more than that. Because of the cost of attendance, the changing fabric … we have to be innovative,” says Amy Beckstrom, executive director of the National Association of College & University Food Services, or NACUFS. “It’s about connecting with students and their campus, about the ability to tell their story to students. That’s where Yale has done an exemplary job.”