Remember when the college “dining experience” meant mystery meats, copious carbs, vague veggies and dubious desserts?
Director of Dining Services Richard Phillips is determined to change those memories and current students’ dining experiences.
Enter the Central Market any day and the cuisine – yes, cuisine – is all about local foods, nutrition and wellness, student input and even a bit of learning. On a recent wintry day with knockwurst on the menu, signs posted throughout the Market educated students about the meat’s German origins, bridging to Central’s emphasis on international study and the European marketplace.
Dining Services, which is led by Phillips and employs 200 students, supports three on-campus venues, plus a full-service catering operation:
- Central Market with stations for comfort foods, pasta, pizza, Mexican, Dutch or vegetarian, plus grilled foods, waffle bar and specialty items.
- Fred’s in the newly renovated Maytag Student Center for between-class or late-night snacks.
- The Café at Geisler Library, a busy venue for sandwiches, salads, scones and coffee.
Students as Customers
When plans for the Maytag Student Center renovation were underway last year, students asked for extended hours at Fred’s (the former Grand Central Station). Phillips researched what other colleges and universities offered and extended the hours to 11 p.m. daily. For his efforts, he received a personal thank you note from a student who said, “I go to work immediately after class to make money and when I return to campus, Central Market is closed. Now I can eat at Fred’s.”
“I listen to the students. They are our customers. It’s their money we are using to offer the best product,” Phillips says. “Close communication is so important. I try my best to keep students apprised of changes.” He regularly sends emails to students, asking for feedback—“tell us what you like or don’t like.” A recent email from Phillips generated 200 responses, some from groups that had discussed solutions.
He also answers emails in the middle of the night, while the ideas are ripe. Well into the second semester, he had not yet received one negative comment. “With input, students don’t feel they have anything to complain about,”
“I am always open to innovations, and most come at student request,” Phillips says. He cites the example of a student request for a Kool-Aid machine at Fred’s, but when students learned the demand would have to be 35 gallons per week to justify the cost, they agreed it wasn’t worth pursuing. “Some suggestions just won’t work out but we are always asking,” Phillips says.
Favorites with flair
The Central Market menu is on a four-week rotation so Phillips looks for ways to vary the standard offerings by retaining student favorites “with a twist.” For example: Students love chicken and chicken strips so Phillips cooks up variations—sweet and sour chicken, bourbon chicken, honey barbecue chicken and chile chicken strips. Mashed potatoes and meatloaf are staples at the comfort foods station but here Phillips offers a remix of hummus/shitake mushroom mashed potatoes or Cajun meatloaf with red beans and rice. “Students are intrigued by these changes and often ask ‘where did this come from?’” Phillips says. If students are curious about the nutritional content of specific items at Central Market, they can obtain an analysis at central. mynutritioncalculator.net.
Another of Phillips’ goals is to be as sustainable as possible in all phases of the food delivery operation. In recent years, Dining Services has reduced food waste by 30 percent using a pulper and going trayless. To reduce paper product usage, Phillips has implemented biodegradables, including reusable cups and, eventually, to-go boxes. Local foods are used as much as possible, when in season and readily available.
Play with your food
Phillips also encourages playing with food. Since becoming director in 2014, he has instituted several special food events such as:
- Halloween with special effects food—“snake eyes” in potatoes with spaghetti, barbecued ribs displayed in an open shirt, all surrounded by “smoke” from a smoke machine for ambience.
- Mardi Gras Day with jambalaya, gumbo, Cajun catfish and a boil of shrimp and potatoes.
- The Annual Bacon Fest, which last year served up 475 pounds of bacon-infused dishes.
The most popular of Phillips’ special events is the All Iowa Foods Day, featuring dishes prepared from local foods grown within 250 miles of campus. Phillips researched the availability of local foods sources, starting with the campus beehive for 10 pounds of honey butter and including vegetables from Professors Jim and Louise Zaffiro’s Prairie Roots Farm, as well as bakeries, meat markets and orchards from the surrounding area.
This year’s spring All Iowa event coincided with Earth Day in late April, with the hope of favorable weather to host an outdoors Farmer’s Market of vendors who can display their wares and talk to students about where their food comes from.
“We shouldn’t go back. We should always be moving forward,” Phillips says. Many of the vendors with whom he has developed relationships donate products and give up employee time to participate in these Central special events.
A Central start
Phillips came to Central in 1999 as an exchange student from Wales’ Trinity College, where he majored in mass media with an emphasis in opera. His first week on campus, he met Kellie Steuhm ’99, who would become his wife. Following graduation, he travelled to his native Canada where he performed in opera but had, he says, “no delusions of grandeur.” By 2001, he was married and had the necessary employment documents to return to the U.S.
Although he enjoyed cooking while growing up, he had no interest in the occupation, having watched his mother work as a chef and restaurant manager.
When he and Kellie relocated to Pella, his first food industry job was at George’s washing dishes. George’s owners soon asked Phillips if he could make pizza, and when Phillips replied, “Sure, whatever you need,” they began teaching him the restaurant business. He later worked at Windmill Café where he learned to cook breakfast and lunch from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m., then returned to George’s to make pizzas.
While working this round-the-clock schedule, Phillips was approached by Don DeWaard ’82, Central assistant football coach and an investor in Pella’s Molengracht. DeWaard asked if Phillips would like to run his own restaurant, and in January, 2006, he and Kellie began to manage Monarch’s in the Royal Amsterdam Hotel on the Molengracht.
“In the 2010 economic downturn, my wife said, ‘we don’t both need to be here all day, everyday.’ When a job came open at Central, I took the job as cook at Central Market. I then became kitchen manager in 2012 and the director in 2014. From the beginning, Central helped me to be the person I am today,” Phillips says.
He is reminded of his early Central days often because down the hall from his Market office is his good friend, fellow Welshman and Trinity College graduate Iwan Williams, who is associate director of catering, and one of the many hard-working staff members who Phillips credits with “delivering the best product everyday.”
“I learned as Central’s kitchen manager that buying the best ingredients doesn’t have to be at highest price,” he says. “I pride myself in getting the best price for the best product.”
He’s also here for alumni, whom he welcomes back with open arms. “Come back and tell us how we are doing. We want alumni to have a positive dining experience and send their kids here, too.”
Chicken in wine sauce
(For 4 people)
- 4 chicken breast
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup mushrooms
- 1 cup cream
- 1 teaspoon chicken base
- 2 russet potatoes
- 1 tablespoon dry ranch mix
- 16 pieces of asparagus
- 4 pieces of bacon
- Dredge the chicken in the flour. Heat some oil in a hot skillet. Cook the dredged chicken on each side for a couple of minutes until browned on both sides. Remove from skillet. Deglaze skillet with some butter and white wine. Add mushrooms and let sweat for a couple of minutes. Add the cream and a teaspoon of chicken base for taste. Let simmer.
- Boil potatoes until soft, then mash potatoes and ranch dressing mix together. Pipe from a piping bag onto the plate. Wrap bacon around a bunch of asparagus and sauté on each side in a hot skillet until bacon is browned. Serve next to the piped mashed potatoes.
- Put chicken in a preheated 350 degree oven for 8 minutes. When an internal temperature of 165 degrees is reached, transfer to serving plate. Carefully pour the mushroom wine sauce over the chicken.
Pasta and veggies
(For 4 people)
- 4 oz. fettuccine per person
- Assorted fresh vegetables julienne cut–as many as you want
- 2 cloves garlic, diced
- 2 oz. of butter
- Herb seasoning – just enough to add some color
- Boil pasta for around 10 minutes or until cooked al dente.
- In a hot skillet melt the butter and some chopped garlic. Add some white wine and turn the heat to medium. Add your vegetables and sauté for about 5 minutes. Don’t overcook. You still want a little crunch left in them. Add your seasoning and reduce heat to a low flame and keep warm while you get the plate ready.
- Drain the pasta very well. Pour the desired amount of pasta onto the plate. Spoon the sautéed veg mix over the pasta with some of the sauce. Garnish