Today’s special: One Culinary Support Center, made to order
The chicken salad starts here.
From within the savory confines of Yale’s new Culinary Support Center (CSC), Ron DeSantis and his cooks are whipping up an array of cold food classics for the entire university. They’re fussing over hummus, attending to house-made dressings, and assembling a superior blend of salad bar gems.
All this represents a new, more efficient approach to cold food preparation at Yale, bringing such tasks out of the pantry cellar and into the light. Meanwhile, Yale’s bakery and catering crews have settled into their new home at CSC, as well.
“We’re going to be creating our own, signature items here,” said DeSantis, director of culinary excellence for Yale Dining, and a former consultant at the Culinary Institute of America. “Incredible sandwich spreads. I can see things like a sundried tomato hummus. I envision a fresh, herb tuna salad.”
It’s quite a menu — and now DeSantis and his team have enough room to produce it.
In August, Yale Dining consolidated its baking, catering, and cold food production into 16,000 square feet of a Yale-owned building on Winchester Avenue, part of the former Science Park complex. The facility boasts a gleaming assortment of ovens, mixers, griddles, cooling racks, dough sheeters, steamers, fryers, broilers, super-sized saucepots, and walk-in refrigerators and freezers.
During a recent tour of the center, there were fresh pasta salads, sliced turkey, and hummus ready to go. A quartet of mighty, Hobart mixers stood like sentinels in the bakery. Rows of cookies and brownies cooled on racks in the catering staging area.
“The ability to consistently increase quality across the board, reduce our operational and transactional footprint, develop seasonal extension opportunities, and create a highly skilled team that is focused on their inner passion for food is at the heart of the Culinary Support Center,” said Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining. “Yale continues to support excellence in its dining program.”
The facility and its 40 employees produce nearly a ton of food each day. They send out 400 lbs. of salad, three times a day; they go through two pallets of garbanzo beans in a week; they prepare cold cuts, cookies, salad dressings and a variety of menu items for catered events.
For instance, DeSantis spotted some beef shortribs slow-cooking in a corner. He stopped and smiled. “This stuff is like butter when it comes out,” he said.
The sheer volume of food makes organizational sophistication a necessity, DeSantis explained. The first baker arrives at 2 a.m. and by 6 a.m. the CSC is hopping like Le Cirque during a dinner rush.
At the helm is a crew of kitchen powerhouses. Along with DeSantis, Yale Dining has brought in Dan Lopez, the former senior executive chef at the United Nations; and chefs Alassane Seck and Cyon Jones, both formerly at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City.
“We have the strongest culinary team of any college or university in the country,” DeSantis said. “To make it all work, communication is essential. You have to talk to each other and listen to each other. Sometimes, it’s as simple as listening to our team when they say, ‘We need more paring knives.’ Those little things, like paring knives, allow the job to get done.”
Having a central operation for cold food and catering allows Yale Dining to purchase in bulk and establish a uniform quality for food preparation, said DeSantis. Fresh food is prepared as quickly as possible and sent to Yale dining halls daily. This ensures that CSC is purchasing only what is needed to produce food requested from dining halls, he notes.
Other advantages include being able to wash and sterilize large food carts inside the building, rather than outside of the dining halls.
But the guiding motivation, DeSantis said, is food quality. As he checked on the progress of sliced Brussels sprouts, cubed sweet potatoes, and coleslaw being prepared at the center, he spoke about some of the culinary creations he’s seeing on a daily basis. They include a “stellar” avocado ranch dressing, and a chicken salad DeSantis said he’d stack up against any other.
“This is the most unbelievably delicious chicken salad you’ve ever had,” he said.