Whats it like to eat at Stanford University?

05 April, 2016 by
Danielle Bowling

The dining operation at Stanford University, one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions, comprises 11 undergrad dining halls, two late night dining facilities, an athletic training table program and 350 staff members who pump out some 12,000 meals a day, or over 3.5 million a year.

Operating as Residential and Dining Enterprises Stanford Dining (R&DE), there’s also the catering services of Schwab Executive Dining, the Teaching Kitchen @ Stanford and a summer conference dining program.

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Oh, and then there’s R&DE Stanford Hospitality and Auxiliaries, which operates 10 high quality retail cafes, each selling fresh, nutritional meals prepared by award winning chefs. Add to this the catering for the university’s stadium, meeting support services, the Stanford Guest House and of course the Central Production Kitchen where food items such as soups, marinades, dressings and sauces are prepared daily and distributed to the dining halls.

For R&DE Stanford Dining staff, service begins in the early morning for breakfast and ends at 2.30am to accommodate students studying in the wee-hours.

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To say that Stanford’s culinary offering is extensive is a serious understatement, as you’re probably now aware. But what’s even more impressive than just the sheer scope of food and hospitality services on offer, is the institution’s unwavering commitment to the quality, sustainability and nutritional value of what it serves.

It would be fair to assume that in an operation of this size, certain things like calorie contents and food wastage can fall by the wayside. It could almost be forgiven. But no, not at Stanford. Each and every R&DE Stanford Dining chef and staff member is not only accountable to a number of guidelines set out by the university, they’re also genuinely passionate about delivering tasty, nutritious and sustainably produced food to students and guests.

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Diversity
One of the best ways to keep both students and R&DE Stanford Dining staff engaged with the culinary program is to ensure its diversity. Not only is there a range of cafes, restaurants, dining halls and catering services on offer, their menus are always changing.

Eric Montell, executive director at Stanford Dining, said “We believe that food must be great tasting and nutritious, and consider both equally when planning our menus, which change daily based on seasonality, program requirements and special events taking place. Additionally, several of the houses in our residential halls are focused on a theme and the menus in their dining halls reflect that.”

Examples include a Vietnamese and Thai food offering called Star Ginger at Stanford’s Okada House in the Wilbur Hall. The menu focuses on southeast Asian comfort foods and includes meals like banh mi, salad rolls, stir-fries and noodles and is the result of a collaboration between the uni and chef Mai Pham, who owns the acclaimed Lemon Grass restaurant in Sacramento.

At one of the houses within the Lucie Stern Hall, the theme is Latino, and a Mexican/Latin American food station called Cardinal Sage serves up roast chicken with poblano chile pesto; wild mushroom tamales; blackened tomato shrimp with chipotle; and beef barbacoa with roasted pineapple and habanero chile salsa.

According to Montell, one of the key benefits of having such a diverse and exciting food offering is that it promotes engagement from students and helps to build a community on-site.

“We work to create diverse menus in every dining hall that appeal to students’ tastes because we want to encourage students to eat where they live,” he said. “The historic tradition of eating in the dining hall at the student residence allows students to dine together and form a community around the dining room tables, and to be an integral part of the overall living and learning environment inherent in residential dining programs.

“The dialogue that occurs with fellow students, faculty or advisors over a meal enhances social and educational opportunities, forms new friendships and build community,” he said.

Health
Health is a key pillar of the university’s food philosophy, with at least half of Stanford’s 15 Culinary Standards relating to wellbeing. These include:

  • Whole Foods? – The uni uses whole, minimally processed foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole and intact grains.
  • Plant-Based Proteins? – It aims to increase the ratio of plant-based proteins in menus, with high-quality animal proteins being in a supporting role.
  • Healthy Beverages? – To reduce sugary beverages and offer healthy house-made beverage alternatives such as spa waters or teas infused with fresh fruits, herbs, and aromatics.
  • Healthier Oils ?- Chefs prepare menus using healthy and beneficial plant oils such as olive and canola oils.

The EatWell initiative is Stanford’s commitment to providing vibrant, flavourful, wholesome and sustainable food that provides customers with nourishing menu selections. And in true Stanford style, a ‘wellness and performance nutritionist’ is on staff to help students eager to create nutritious and flavourful meal plans.

Meals at Stanford are free of artificial preservatives, colours, flavours, sweeteners and trans fats, and under the EatWell umbrella, a program called Performance Dining has been developed together with Stanford Athletics, the Stanford School of Medicine and the Culinary Institute of America.

“The Performance Dining initiative was designed with synergistic food and nutrient combinations and performance themes in mind to help students perform at their mental and physical peak,” said Montell.

“There are six main categories to Performance Dining at Stanford: enhanced immunity, anti-inflammatory components, food synergy, brain performance, sports performance and antioxidants.”

And when you’re all about education, and you’re committed to health, who better to partner with than the one and only Jamie Oliver?

“We believe in educating students about building healthy eating habits through the use of healthy cooking techniques and sustainable ingredients, so earlier this year we partnered with the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation to launch The Teaching Kitchen @ Stanford,” Montell told Hospitality.

“This offers multiple classes each month that are inspiring change through food education. Since the Teaching Kitchen opened in January, many Stanford students have learned the fundamentals of cooking delicious meals while understanding how to eat healthier and build confidence in cooking for themselves and others.

“We really do believe that food knowledge and cooking skills are fundamental to health and wellness, and that cooking classes provide a unique opportunity to build life skills, support community building, create a culture of health and wellness and develop a joy for cooking,” he said.

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Sustainability
At Stanford, food is about so much more than health and nutrition. It’s about being a responsible citizen and respecting the people and environments that provide staff and students with sustenance.

“We believe that nutritious and great tasting food is absolutely essential for our students,” said Montell. “But not only do we provide our students with food options that help them perform [well], we promote food as a multidisciplinary educational experience … We engage students in food issues such as those related to health, the environment, social equity and the global economy.”

Stanford is showing the world how sustainable practices can be implemented on a grand scale. R&DE Stanford Dining recently became the first campus dining program to be Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership (REAL) Certified by the United States Healthful Food Council for its nutrition and sustainability best practices, and was also the recipient of the 2015 Hobart Centre for Foodservice Sustainability Grant for being the most innovative and well executed foodservice sustainability organisation of the year. Its Moore Dining Hall has also been certified by the Green Restaurant Association.

As well as the uni’s 15 Culinary Principles mentioned earlier, the institution also has a series of sustainability guidelines that it adheres to.

Through the Sustainable Food Program, Stanford has developed a set of purchasing guidelines and preferences, which according to Montell have been informed by the most current science and research available and draw upon the input of a number of the university’s stakeholders.

As such, the uni strives to source food that is:

  • Local – grown, raised or processed within 150 miles of campus
  • Direct – purchased directly from independently-owned growers, producers and manufacturers
  • Organic and sustainable – USDA certified organic produce and Seafood Watch-approved seafood
  • Humane – Meat, dairy, poultry and byproducts that come from livestock that was able to range freely and express their natural instincts
  • Fair – Traded at economic, social and environmental parity.

“Our Sustainable Food Program is dedicated to educating students and the community about how their food choices affect the environment. Through this program, we have built relationships with many local and sustainable farmers, ranchers and fisheries,” Montell said.

“The university chooses to purchase antibiotic free, humanely raised chicken from a local producer; wild salmon from one family fishery on the Taku River in Alaska … and a variety of fresh produce from a number of local farms.”

A win for Australia
Another, fairly recent commitment is to serve only humanely-raised, grass-fed beef, and its partnership with Meat and Livestock Australia is seeing about 120,000 pounds (close to 54.5 tonnes) of grass-fed beef sent to the uni each year.

“We evaluated a number of sustainable practices, culinary standards, food safety procedures and humane practices before making the decision to switch to beef from Australia in 2014. We highly value Australian beef because the cattle is grass-fed, humanely raised on pasture, hormone and antibiotic free and halal certified,” Montell said.

Another key attraction of Aussie beef is the fact that it’s container shipped to the states – one of the most sustainable and efficient methods of transporting food. By switching to a non-Californian beef, it also reduces water usage in the state, which is experiencing a severe drought.

“The changes in our beef program have resulted in 50 million gallons of Californian water not being used per year.

“We have tested and compared other grass-fed meats and Australian beef has some of the best attributes we have encountered. One characteristic is that less water seems to be released, allowing it to brown more quickly with minimal shrinkage,” he said.

Watching the wasteline
An integral part of any foodservice operation claiming to be committed to sustainability is its attention to food waste. And of course, Stanford has it covered. The university aims to generate as little waste as possible while responsibly reusing any resource waste that is generated.

Its Trayless Dining initiative reduces food waste by addressing portion sizes and overconsumption, while also reducing water and energy consumption from not having to clean trays, and of course emissions by having less waste to transport to landfill.

Montell elaborates, “All our dining halls compost pre- and post-production food waste, which is sent to an off-site composting facility, diverting food waste from landfill and resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Waste oil from the dining halls – roughly 7,000 gallons (about 26,500L) year – is converted to biodiesel by a local non-profit.

“Our staff also use the Lean Path Waste Auditing system to monitor food waste and make adjustments accordingly. This allows us to record the food headed to trash or compost and estimate its value. The system then lets us know where adjustments can be made either in purchasing, production or staff training to prevent the waste from occurring.”

Managers and chefs also track attendance patterns at the university’s various eating establishments, reducing the amount of food ordered or cooked, and even shutting down dining halls if low demand is anticipated, for example when a big football match is on.

The food on offer in America’s teaching institutions has long conjured up images of sloppy Joes, fatty pizzas and other equally unimpressive, nutritionally devoid meals. And while the vast majority of schools and educational institutions in the US could only dream of the resources that allow Stanford to be so forward thinking, at the very least the university should stand as an inspiration for businesses, training academies and commercial kitchens of all shapes and sizes, to do what it can to serve good quality, healthy and sustainably-produced meals.

Stanford University is showing the world that those soulless meals traditionally associated with the country’s education system can be a thing of the past.

It's comforting to know that its students, many of who will no doubt be tomorrow's leaders, are spending some of their most influential years in an environment which is teaching them to be healthy, responsible citizens who understand that there's so much more to food than just how it looks and tastes. 

Hospitality visited Stanford University as part of the MLA's inaugural Masterpieces competition of 2014.