VeggieHappy gets an exclusive interview with Chef Chris Studtmann, District Executive Chef for Sodexo in the Chicagoland Area. In this Q&A format, Chef Chris talks about serving the evolving needs of a student population and his suggestions for foodservice providers.
VH: How is university foodservice different from other types of foodservice?
Chef Chris: University foodservice is different from hotels or restaurants in several ways, but one primary reason is that we have a captive audience. This means we can make more of an impact on peoples’ day-to-day lives. We not only provide them with nourishment, we also provide them with relief from the stresses of the day, and with an opportunity to enhance their athletic performance.
Our population also changes by 25% every year, because of the freshman class. Freshmen account for 50-70% of customers at campus dining locations.
How has campus dining evolved since you began working as a university chef?
Campus dining has changed dramatically over the past 10-12 years. Our customers are better cultured now, and this has created a different kind of challenge. College students are also driving the trend toward plant-based dining, and this is consistent across the U.S. It’s a trend that’s been growing every year; a real culture change.
I like having data behind my decisions, to validate what I do, so I did a study at Northwestern on the number of students utilizing the plant-based program. When I first started adding plant-based options, there was a 10% take rate (meaning that for 500 patrons, 50 would go with the plant-based options). This take rate rose to 35%. And this is with 9% of the students being self-proclaimed vegans. Not everyone is vegan, but they like to eat differently and try new things.
Campus dining has also moved to plated service and restaurant-quality dining, versus the old school buffet. One of our dining platforms is totally plant-based, and all our foods are made from scratch.
How did you start developing your plant-based dining options?
It’s an interesting story. I have also been the chef on the athletic side at Northwestern, so I work with the athletic department and with sports nutritionists to create a diet to help enhance sports performance. The common ingredients are all plant-based. We push vegetables for muscle and strength, leafy greens and berries and fruits as anti-oxidants, whole grains, and complete proteins.
We have more than 800 student athletes, but not all of them are able to get the NCAA regulated meals, so a lot of these athletes eat their meals on regular campus. We wanted to make sure they had access to the same options. We also thought about students who are training for something, or enjoy working out, who also want to eat like an athlete in a campus dining atmosphere.
As a result, in the last five years, the training program for athletes started driving what we offered on campus as a whole. We offer students a 100% plant-based platform, and are reducing animal protein and increasing our plant-based options overall.
As a chef, what is your approach to presenting your plant-based menu?
I partner with dieticians and athletics to guide people to healthy dining. I start by offering a foundation of plants, grains, and alternate proteins. Falafels, as one example, are very popular. They sell like crazy.
We bridge the gap for some by going with 100% authentic cuisine. It might be cuisine from India, or Southeast Asia, or Latin America (with beans and chili). We aim for customers to be comfortable with foods being presented a different way than what they’re used to. It establishes a growing trust, and also allows us to be more sustainable.
Based on your experience, what suggestions or advice would you give to foodservice managers or chefs at large venues?
Be creative. Simple substitution is not what people want. It’s not enough. Go all the way if you’re going to do it. Make a great sauce, marinate with pickles and veggies, or use a plant-based condiment like Just Mayo, that isn’t strange in texture or flavor. If you do it right, and sample it, you’ll see what a difference this makes.
It’s not enough any more to just have a frozen veggie patty on hand. Signature items are a great idea. They’re a much more interesting format and they’ll increase your sales. Why not have something that’s more exciting on your core menu? It’ll create buzz and reviews and excitement, instead of just having that day-of option in the cooler.
For concession menus, verbiage needs to make sense and stay brief, but I wouldn’t call an item “vegan.” It makes it seem exclusive, when it needn’t be.
The other thing I suggest is to get exposure. Go to a plant-based restaurant and see what they’re doing. Chefs at traditional restaurants are adding plant-based dining options too. It’s about utilizing all the ingredients and finding ways to make plant-based foods sexy. Anyone who knows how to cook can make a steak sexy, but do they know how to make beets sexy? Utilize the whole beet and roast it.
Are there any resources you’d recommend to chefs or foodservice managers who want to increase or enhance their plant-based options?
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was helpful for me. Sodexo has partnered with them to develop recipes. I’ve been working with Ken Botts who heads their Forward Food training events. He has a history of working with universities and has brought chefs in to launch this fall across Sodexo dining. I love the recipes we’ve created together.
HSUS also has a web page for Meatless Monday recipes. But don’t just go to the internet. Go to those food shows with innovative products and solutions. They can be very cool. You’ll connect with people and make relationships that can be very helpful.
I always say that being a chef is about looking for the next flavor. Put your heart and soul passion into it! It keeps things exciting.
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