Rafi Taherian’s Silver Plate honor is a win for a whole team
Just as gathering for meals builds relationships and community, it takes a whole community of staff members to feed students and other guests on the Yale campus. Associate vice president of Yale Hospitality Rafi Taherian credits his entire team for a distinction he recently received — winning the 2016 Silver Plate for college and university foodservice from the International Foodservice Manufacturer’s Association (IFMA).
The Silver Plate honor, often called the “Academy Award” for foodservice, singles out Taherian and his team, Yale Hospitality (formerly called Yale Dining), for leading the best foodservice operation at any college or university in the nation. Silver Plate winners are nominated in nine different categories of food service by IFMA members and industry leaders, and are selected by a jury of national trade press editors, foodservice experts, and past award winners.
One Silver Plate winner among the nine will be chosen by the jury to receive the foodservice industry’s most prestigious recognition, IFMA’s Gold Plate Award, which will be announced at the 62nd Annual Gold & Silver Plate Awards Celebration taking place in Chicago on May 21. Taherian, who will be there in his tuxedo along with some 1,000 other attendees at the formal ceremony, says that this award “really tells an amazing story about Yale Hospitality as a whole. It is a tribute not just to our operation but to all of our employees.”
Yale Hospitality includes 32 separate establishments, among them the dining halls at the residential colleges; Commons at the Schwarzman Center; convenience stores like Durfees; and cafés and restaurants, including those at the Yale School of Management, Yale’s West Campus, and the Yale Golf Course. Taherian took over Yale Dining as it transitioned from an outsourced contract operation to Yale management.
“It was very unusual at the time for a college foodservice to be brought back under the management of the institution,” says Taherian, “and it was also extremely challenging.” The transition, he explains, required building a team to provide operational leadership, purchasing, menu development, culinary quality assurance, communication, facility design, and finance and business administration — all while convincing the university community that the new foodservice system would indeed be an improvement.
“Our operation has three sets of responsibilities: to provide the best service by creating memorable dining experiences; to adhere to our values of sustainability and stewardship; and to foster and maintain a connection to our community in a positive way,” Taherian says.
Healthy, sustainable meals
Much has changed during his eight years at Yale, Taherian says. Sustainably sourced, wholesome food is now served in all venues at all meal periods (rather than being reserved for one dining hall or one meal period). What differentiates Yale Hospitality from most of its peers is that sustainability and wellness are not just initiatives, but have been implemented across all operations, often years before others in the industry did so, says Gerry Remer, director of supply chain and sustainability for Yale Hospitality.
For example, Yale Hospitality has been serving humanely raised, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, vegetarian-fed poultry in all of its operations for more than five years. Now all pork and beef also meet these criteria, and in 2015 Yale Hospitality sourced all grass-fed, grass-finished beef and lamb — a standard few restaurants, let alone collegiate dining programs, can meet, according to Taherian.
“Promoting health and wellness has been a main goal for us from the start,” he says, “but never by reducing flavor or limiting selections. Healthy food and good, flavorful food have to be the same thing.”
The Yale Hospitality strategy focuses on plant-based proteins, including legumes, whole grains, and lots of vegetables. Purchases of these items are up 40% over the last five years. “We have higher-quality animal protein, but consume less of it,” Taherian says.
By the end of 2013, Yale Hospitality had met all its goals outlined in the 2010-2013 Sustainability Plan, including reaching its target of 40% total purchases from sustainable sources. Consumption of sugary drinks is down by nearly 35% as a result of making fruit-infused spa water available in every dining hall and at every event. The department’s new three-year sustainability plan focuses on health and wellness, leadership, food access, and food security.
Beginning with an “Erase the Waste” initiative in 2008, Yale Hospitality has continued to reduce its overall use of resources, including food, energy, water, and chemicals. Organic waste is composted and non-organic waste is recycled.
“Sustainability has been a central part of what we do,” says Taherian. “As we have moved toward healthier eating, we also work hard toward creating a healthier environment.”
Creating memorable experiences
Yale Hospitality serves some 14,000 meals a day on campus, but Taherian says that his team’s greater mission is to create memorable experiences.
“Food may be at the center, but what students and guests remember is the experience,” says Taherian, noting for example, that graduating seniors often cite the Freshman Holiday Dinner — when freshmen are treated to a formal holiday-themed meal in a decorated University Commons at the Schwarzman Center — as one of the highlights of their Yale experience.
Other programs that Yale Hospitality has introduced that have become traditions include:
- Reality Bites, a program that prepares graduating seniors for their time beyond Yale by introducing them to dining etiquette, food and wine pairing, how to shop for groceries, proper kitchen tools, and more.
- Final Cut, an annual undergraduate student culinary competition, similar to “Iron Chef,” that is judged by Yale administrators and professional chefs.
- Farm Tours, which annually bring nearly 400 undergraduates to local farms to learn firsthand about agricultural practices and the impact of immigration and land use planning.
- Uncommon Market, a farmer’s market, held outside of Commons weekly during the summer and early fall, where members of the university can buy locally grown produce at wholesale prices as well as baked goods from the Yale Bakery.
- The Foodie Program, which brings world-renowned chefs to campus several times a year, allowing students to sample meals and see chefs in action. This program is so popular that typically 700 students vie for 100 spots per visit, according to Taherian.
“In all of these, food is the catalyst, but what we are really doing is creating events that bring parts of the university together,” says Taherian. “Food, after all, is really about relationships, and that is what our students and other members of our community are doing here — having conversations in our dining halls and building relationships.”
Partnering in the community
In addition to supporting local and regional farmers and businesses through its purchasing choices, Yale Hospitality donates food to several New Haven soup kitchens, including the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen and St. Thomas More.
Since 2009, Yale Hospitality has hosted a Chili Cook-off in Commons in support of the United Way. At this event, Yale community members vie to win the contest for “best chili,” and hundreds on campus sample their creations.
“Yale students who eat in the dining halls appreciate the high-quality food that Yale Hospitality staff members work hard to provide them. What may be less well-known on campus is the commitment of Yale Hospitality to the local community,” says Bruce Alexander, university vice president and director of New Haven & state affairs and campus development, who oversees Yale Hospitality. “In addition to providing meaningful jobs for so many New Haven area residents, Yale Hospitality is devoted to supporting the businesses of local vendors and business owners, and to contributing to the local community through its donations to New Haven soup kitchens and to the United Way through the Chili Cook-off. The Silver Plate is a much-deserved recognition of this far-reaching hospitality to our students, our campus community, and our wider community as well.”
Among the local restaurants and businesses from which Yale Hospitality purchases foods are Thali, Ivy Noodle, Katalina’s Cupcakes, Whole G bakery, and Farmer’s Cow, to name just some.
“By supporting local businesses and utilizing their products, we not only help sustain them but may help them grow,” Taherian says.
Leading and innovating
In keeping with the university’s role as a center of research and teaching, Taherian and his Yale Hospitality crew feel a responsibility to lead and innovate within the food industry. “With that responsibility there is also the opportunity to leverage our staff’s volume purchasing power and knowledge of the food industry to influence the availability of healthy options in the marketplace,” he says. For example, Taherian requested a lower-sodium canned bean from Bush’s Best Beans to support the sodium-reduction initiative for Yale diners. While initially skeptical, the company eventually began producing the lower-sodium product for supermarkets, and the reduced-salt Bush’s beans have become one of their staples, Taherian notes.
Likewise, Yale’s master chef Ron DeSantis — one of only 67 certified master chefs in the country — partnered with the New Haven-based manufacturer Lamberti’s Italian Sausage to develop new sausage recipes, including a chicken and sweet potato sausage. Yale Hospitality staff also convinced Hummel to create low-sodium, nitrate-free hotdogs for Yale’s dining operations. Ultimately, these healthier products will be available in the market at a reasonable price so more people can afford healthy choices, according to Taherian.
In 2012, Yale Hospitality launched the Northeast Purchasing Group Initiative to partner with other large-scale institutions on purchasing , and in 2013, Yale Hospitality hosted the first Northeast Purchasing Group Sustainability Conference to explore consensus around sustainability criteria and goals. With these institutions’ combined purchasing power comes the ability to influence availability and affordability of sustainable and healthy food options, not just for institutions but for the public, Taherian says.
Commitment to excellence
Yale Hospitality staff members in the residential dining halls see themselves not solely as workers but as members of the college community, say Taherian. “Our staff is a dedicated group. They know students by name and know what they like. During weather emergencies, for example, time after time our team proved that its number-one priority was to ensure our students well-being.”
“I think the magic of Yale Hospitality comes from hiring the right team and providing resources for its development,” says Taherian. “We’ve offered some 12,000 man-hours of training annually for our staff, in areas including culinary skills, customer service, sustainability, safety, and sanitation. We invest a lot of resources in our staff.
“It is also a bonus to have staff members that are at the top of their craft,” he continues. “Yale Hospitality is a nationally recognized organization and in the past several years, Yale chefs have won gold medals in the National Association of College & University Food Services competition, and in 2015 the staff members in the Yale Bakery won the university’s Linda K. Lorimer Award for distinguished service.”
In addition to training programs, Taherian and his administrative team ensure that Yale Hospitality staff members have the opportunity to take part in the university’s health and wellness initiatives by bringing them directly into the dining halls. For example, as part of the Being Well at Yale initiative, a smoking cessation program was introduced in the dining halls, and Yale Hospitality recently hosted its 2016 Health and Wellness Fair for over 400 of its employees, which included sessions on fitness, home-buying, and more.
University support blended with a food culture
Taherian says that winning the Silver Plate Award is also a testament to wider support of the university and its community.
“Yale is a very food-centric institution,” he says. “But beyond that, the institution has supported us in terms of both our resources and our vision. President Peter Salovey has attended all but one Final Cut competition — and that was because he was away from campus that year. I think that says a lot about how much we’ve been supported.”
Yale senior Rafi Bildner, who has participated in a number of Yale Hospitality programs, including the Final Cut culinary competition, says, “As someone who grew up surrounded by food and the food industry — my family was in both the supermarket and produce distribution businesses — I have immense respect for people like Rafi, who are determined to take foodservice to the next level. It has been a highlight of my time at school getting to know the folks at Yale Hospitality, and collaborate with them on a number of projects. Rafi and I are constantly joking with each other about how we're the only Rafi's on campus right now, and I always tell Rafi when I see him that he's my ‘Rafi role model.’
“Yale Hospitality is truly an exemplary organization, and clearly, those in the industry see that Rafi Taherian has revolutionized dining at Yale and set an example for bettering institutional dining across the globe,” adds Bildner. “This Silver Plate honor couldn't be a better example of that!”