We’ve all heard the saying, “we are what we eat” and this becomes all the more prevalent when students are eating three meals a day for eight months in the Rutgers-Camden Dining Hall. So to dissect the food we eat everyday and to take a look behind the scenes, the Gleaner sat down with Kris Solt, the Assistant Director of Dining Services and head man in charge of the program here in Camden.
Solt came to Rutgers-Camden four years ago upon the start of the renovations to the Camden Dining Center. His culinary career has lead him many places, working as a chef at three very high profile restaurants, like Jojo’s in NYC. But here in Camden, Solt is running the show entirely and has one goal.
“Our main goal is to serve the students and faculty the best possible product by keeping things the freshest and safest. We start with the best to get the best.”
However, the best often comes with a price. “An important aspect of our dining services program is that it is an auxiliary service. We receive no budget from the university. So everything from light fixtures, to paying salaries, and especially our food, depends on the revenue we bring in. We’re a state university; 90 percent of state workers are unionized. Everything is structured and regulated to ensure we are giving employee’s good wages, health benefits, vacation time, etc. This is something that heavily impacts our prices,” said Solt.
Maintaining a reputable staff isn’t the only things that keep prices fluctuating, it’s the food itself. Have you ever tried to buy a tomato in February? The price can become steep. But all year, you may see tomatoes on the salad and that’s because Solt is using a program called Food Pro to allow companies to bid on products he wants so he can keep prices the lowest he can for the students.
“We like to have things like tomatoes and fresh fruit at the salad bar everyday and the price we can get those items changes every season. The salad bar prices are set to compliment the effort and specialty that we put into the station. Fruit needs to be diced, salads need to be made, and then someone has to arrange and refill everything throughout the day,” explained Solt.
It’s not just Solt’s staff who’s refilling the salad bar and dishing up pasta. Solt, himself, acts as the head chef in the kitchen, creating menus and cultivating all the recipes.
“I act as the head chef with my A and B chefs along side. I’m very hands-on with any high profile events, like when the Chancellor entertains, and do much of the cooking. I try to engage my team by having them come up with recipes and make changes of my own to keep everyone on the ball.”
Repeatedly throughout the interview, Solt emphasized freshness and quality. He talked about how everything is cooked to order to ensure quality and whatever gets sent out of his kitchen needs to be the safest it can be for the students.
“All of our hamburgers come frozen because it is a requirement from the university sanitarian. It’s the safest thing for everyone; we never want to have a safety issue. Things, like our chicken wings, could be either frozen or fresh, depending on recipe. We receive deliveries five days a week and our choice beef, chicken breast, and fish always come fresh. Things you might find in our freezer are shrimp and French fries, which come directly from Brew City French Fries. They taste good and stay crisp; it’s a win, win for us, even though we pay a little more for the product,” Solt emphasized.
For those of you that want a variety and don’t want to eat pizza slices all day, the dining hall has a great variety of foods. You can find everything from pasta to salads to home-cooked meals, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
“Not only do we change menu items daily, but I prepare seasonal menus. Right now we’re using a summer menu so you see a lot of salsas, vinaigrettes, and reduction sauces. But as summer spills into fall, we’ll start to serve some more hearty dishes like stews,” said Solt.
Before choosing Rutgers, you may have visited some other colleges and noticed that their dining halls were buffet style. At these types of dining halls, you swipe your card and get to eat as much as you want for one price. Sounds great right? Well there is a reason why Rutgers-Camden doesn’t offer this.
“The reason this is not a buffet style dining center is because we only have one facility. From this one facility we feed all faculty, students, and even members of the community. This way of service also makes us more ecologically responsible because we don’t have a lot of waste,” Solt explained.
Health and the quality of food is always something to think about. For those of you, like me, who always wonder what exactly you are putting in your mouth; fear not, because, as it turns out, Rutgers actually uses healthy oils to cook their vegetables in.
“We use Collivita olive oil for cooking vegetables and other various items. We use a pure vegetable oil for sauté and for frying to ensure we get a nice sear and crunchy fry. Butter is mainly used for finishing. To add richness to a dish or shine, soups get a bit of butter at the end to give a nice flavor and richness. Sometimes we’ll make a roué with olive oil instead of butter to cut the calories,” said Solt.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, there is food to accommodate you as well. Even if you have a specific food allergy, you need not fret.
“We have a registered dietitian that works out of New Brunswick who will work with the student, their doctor, and anyone else. The dietitian will then meet with me and I will make sure the student gets the food they need and want. If a student wants soymilk or gluten free pasta, we have it, they just have to ask. What I recommend is that any student who needs a special menu, go to our website, and they will find all the resources necessary,” Solt explained.
As it turns out, there is a lot going on behind the scenes at Rutgers that we may not have realized. So, if you haven’t already stopped by the dining hall, give it a chance, and if you have, give them some credit. There is always something on the menu for everybody.