If you’re a University of Texas at Arlington student with a meal plan, chances are you’ve met David Patton. He’s the chef entertainer (that’s his official title) and three days a week he runs food demonstrations in the university’s all-you-care-to-eat dining hall.
The demonstrations are part of Maverick Dining’s teaching kitchen, a dedicated space in the heart of the dining hall that was developed to educate students about and help them engage with food and with each other. The island, added during a renovation, features a large screen, eye-catching menu, and a grill station to one side. There are 10 chairs for student participants.
Students don’t need to sign up or even know about the demonstrations ahead of time to participate. They just sit down at the teaching kitchen counter whenever Patton is cooking to watch and eat together. (Students can also ask for a meal to go.)
The teaching kitchen concept was developed by Compass Group North America. The university dining system opted in as part of a wider effort to make the dining experience special. Freshmen and other students who live on campus are required to purchase a meal program, says Sean Armstrong, resident district manager. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and meaningful.
“Our goal for Maverick Dining at UTA is to give them an authentic experience,” Armstrong says. “What we have here is a wonderful complement” to the traditional dining experience. The biggest benefit of the teaching kitchen program is that it helps make the dining hall “not just a point of service, it’s an experience. There are benefits to your meal plan that are beyond just convenience and speed of service.”
LeeAnn Irland, marketing manager, notes that the teaching kitchen is part of a larger effort to make the dining experience memorable with “monotony breakers” like the food demons. They also run several events each semester.
The teaching kitchen operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with short demonstrations taking place three or four times each day. Patton partners with executive chef Maja Gajic to plan upcoming demonstrations based on an extensive list of teaching kitchen recipes from Compass Group. On Mondays they highlight core recipes. On Wednesdays they focus on recipes by celebrity chefs. “Feel-Good Fridays” focus on wellness and healthy eating.
In the celebrity chef category, Irland notes two dishes that were especially popular. The first was Guy Fieri’s Trash Can Nachos. Students reacted with glee when Patton lifted a giant can to reveal a showy tower of chips and melty cheese loaded with toppings. The second was a visit to campus by Chef Jet Tila who made a guest appearance to serve Thai and Texas barbecue fusion followed by teaching kitchen demos.
Students have also been drawn to other creative, big-flavor items. For their Baja shrimp tacos, students assembled the filling in hollowed-out pineapple halves. On their loaded, smashed baked potato day, students could choose Italian-, Texas- or Hawaiian-style toppings. Cajun dishes are in the regular rotation; the shrimp po’ boys were especially well-liked. And they thumbs-upped goat cheese crostinis and pumpkin no-bake energy bars.
The Monday and Wednesday demos are flexible; Patton and Gajic plan them just a few weeks in advance. The Friday demos are planned a little further out to mesh with the their dietitian’s monthly wellness themes that focus on superfoods and other good-for-you ingredients.
Patton works alone much of the time, prepping ingredients, setting up the station, cooking, serving and recruiting and engaging with students. For especially complex dishes an associate will join him to help out.
To implement your own teaching kitchen program, Armstrong suggests first identifying a staff member who has the energy to connect with students. (He describes Patton as “lightning in a bottle.”) After finding an engaging personality on your team, determine the best location for your demonstrations. Armstrong also notes that both Patton and Gajic have enough autonomy to do what they think will connect best with students.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the student experience. “We want to elevate [the dining] experience,” Irland says, emphasizing that they want students to come to the dining hall for more than a quick meal. They’d like them to feel like “there’s fun things always going on. There’s ways I can get involved. There’s ways I can connect with culinarians and chefs and dietitians and connect with one another, to build those friendships and those memories. It’s very important to us.”