How did Yale Hospitality become a lean, green leader? Even China’s asking

Rafi Taherian and Adam Millman discuss dining on campus, the intersections of sustainability and wellness, and Yale’s place as an international leader in each.
A Yale Hospitality spread on Cross Campus in 2017.

A Yale Hospitality spread on Cross Campus in 2017. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Every day, across 14 residential college dining halls, six cafés, five restaurants, one convenience store, and a $7 million catering operation, Yale Hospitality serves more than 14,000 meals — infusing the principles of wellness and sustainability into every bite. Year after year, student satisfaction surveys show that these healthy, sustainable meals are also considered downright delicious. Next week, a delegation of top chefs and food industry experts are coming from China to find out just how Yale Hospitality does it.

YaleNews met with Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Hospitality, and Adam Millman, senior director of Yale Auxiliary, Catering, and Culinary Support Center, to discuss both the operation’s on-campus practices and its place on the international stage as a leader-educator in the movement for healthy and sustainable dining. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Yale Hospitality serves 14,000 meals a day. How do you do it?

Taherian: We have an amazing group of about 850 culinarians and staff whose number-one focus is to create memorable experiences for each and every one of those 14,000 people. But we’re not so much focused on the number of meals served but the quality of the service and the quality of the program that we provide. And that’s second to none. In 2016, we were the recipients of the International Food Manufacturer’s Association Gold and Silver Plate award, one of the top honors in the country.

Why have sustainability and wellness become key focuses for Yale Hospitality in the past decade?  

Rafi Taherian
Rafi Taherian

Taherian: Here at Yale, President Salovey says we need to forge new paths that foster academic exploration, engage dialogue across various disciplines, and, create a connection between Yale’s operations and our teaching and research mission.  There is an inherent affinity within our organization to provide craveable, delicious and healthy food, and while doing, protecting resources in a sustainable way. This strategy has been at the front and center of every initiative we have been working over the last decade.  In our line of work, you either lead, follow or get out of the way. It is obvious to all of us what road we prefer to take.

How does Yale Hospitality integrate these principles into daily practice?

Taherian: Sustainability and wellness are integrated into every aspect of what we do on a daily basis and is not just translated in the food that we prepare, but in the food we buy, the way we prepare food, the way we actually manage leftovers and waste and recycling. An organization that does 14,000 meals a day has 14,000 opportunities to do it right.

When it comes to our ingredient sourcing, 100% of our protein is antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and ethically sourced from animals that are humanely treated. Our milk and dairy products are always going to be rBST free. [rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, is an artificially synthesized cow growth hormone that increases milk production.] Our seafood is always going to be sustainably sourced seafood. This principle also comes into the amount of processing of our ingredients. We are very, very scratch-made and very minimally processed. We meet the National Salt Reduction Initiative guidelines. We are always going to be nitrate free. We are not going to have chemicals in your food that we prepare. Our pastry products are going to be made with whole grain and a minimum amount of simple carbs and sugar. When you come into any of our dining halls you will experience food that is sustainable and healthy, as well as designed through a culturally based menu development. You will choose your favorite food, and our job is to make sure the pleasure of eating the food is interwoven with everything else.

And even though it’s healthy for you and the planet, it all tastes good too?

Taherian: Presentation and taste is everything. Our job is to make sure that our food is not only attractively positioned but also delicious and craveable… so when you eat it, you will have a positive and memorable experience.

How did Yale Hospitality become a leader in the movement for sustainable and health dining at scale, and how is the operation poised to affect real change in this area?

Taherian: We’ve been practicing this for many years. We are in the forefront of campus dining when it comes to designing menus that are plant-based or plant-forward. Most of our menus are Mediterranean-diet based, and our food is not only delicious but good for you and has a low carbon footprint. Leadership in the area of sustainability is not only about innovation and creating new solutions to support sustainability but also about collaborating and sharing best practices. It’s not accidental that a lot of other universities and other organizations in the food industry did reach out to us because we are the proof of concept that you can be a large-scale organization that does many thousands of meals a day and be sustainable, delicious, and fiscally responsible. We are often asked by other industry leaders to tour our operations. They come in because they want to experience that firsthand and to see how we do what we do.

For these menus, what do you mean by “plant-forward”? How does that serve sustainability and wellness?

Taherian: The American diet is composed of significant amounts of animal-based protein and animal-based products. We know now through medical research that more animal-based protein and animal products are not necessarily good for our own health and wellness and not necessarily good for the health of the planet. In fact, if you look at the diets from most of the rest of the world you see delicious food with lower amounts of protein. So we’re trying to experiment with our menus by designing them to be “plant-forward” or plant-centric. When you go to our dining halls in any of the residential colleges, you will now find that about 85% of the menu options are made of plant products or plant-based products.

Starting next week, Yale Hospitality will be doing international education around its sustainability and wellness best practices with the Food Forward Forum, a conference that’s bringing in a delegation from the Chinese food industry. Why do these experts from China want to visit and learn from Yale?

Adam Millman
Adam Millman

Millman: What we do influences the industry across the globe. We have visitors every single day coming to Yale to see what we're doing and why we're doing it. And it just so happens next week we’re bringing the Food Forward Forum here to the United States, which is a delegation from China to see what we’re doing here in six of the major food players here in the Northeast [Yale, the University of Massachusetts, University of Connecticut, Harvard, the Culinary Institute of America, and Google’s New York City headquarters.] They’re going to be coming here to learn from us and have a cultural exchange of some of our best practices, so they can bring back to China and influence change there.

Who’s in the Chinese delegation?

Millman: The delegation coming from China is a mix of chefs, educators, and manufacturers from across China. There’s one chef coming from Peking University, the largest, most prestigious university in China. There’s one coming from a three-diamond restaurant in Shanghai, a plant-forward restaurant. There’s a chef coming who served at the G-2 summit. And also there’s a whole host of folks from different professions that all have an interest in sustainability, health, and wellness who want to learn how they can bring a plant-forward approach in high volume back to China.

In addition to sustainable and healthy best practices, what will Yale Hospitality be teaching the Chinese delegation? In return, what will the Chinese delegation be teaching Yale Hospitality?

Chef Ren Jinsuo plates a plant-based Lunar New Year dish.
Chef Ren Jinsuo plates a plant-based Lunar New Year dish.

Millman: We’re bringing this delegation here for two reasons. One, for a cultural exchange, and two, for education. On Monday, the Chinese chefs are cooking a great meal. In order to be selected for the delegation, they were challenged to take a traditional Lunar New Year menu and transform it into an 85% plant-based menu. They absolutely rose to the occasion. I was out in China last week to taste the menu with them, and the food is fantastic. It’s innovative but it’s still true to the culture and history and tradition of Lunar New Year.

Our chefs are going to be working with their chefs and producing these meals to learn traditional Chinese techniques, and they are coming here and learning traditional western techniques. When I was out there and speaking with these chefs through a translator, the thing they were most excited about was experiencing produce that they’ve never seen before in China, like Brussels sprouts and some of the other items that we have here in the United States and are interested in learning how to use them so they can bring them back to their cuisine in China.

Is the Food Forward Forum the beginning of an ongoing international collaboration between Yale and food industry leaders abroad? If so, what’s the next collaboration likely to be?

Millman: We actually started these collaborations about a year ago. We brought a delegation from the Mediterranean Roundtable to focus on the Mediterranean diet, and the Chinese delegation is the next step. Then we want to bring folks from the United States out to China and have a cultural exchange out there. After that, we’ll branch out and potentially focus more on the Mediterranean diet, and on Mexico and then Latin America diets, but this is the first really big collaboration of what will be many more.

Besides this international cultural and educational exchange, what are Yale Hospitality’s other ongoing sustainability and wellness goals?

Millman: In addition to driving change, our goals are to increase our plant-forward food options and to reduce our waste, as well as to impart change across the system in waste reduction and in education across waste reduction. Our largest goal is education, which is what the Food Forward Forum is doing, but also really general education about sustainability and how everybody can play a part in it on a day-to-day basis.


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