Chef Dennis Williams on Innovating Campus Dining
As a college chef for nearly 30 years, Dennis Williams knows what it takes to serve a campus. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Williams has served or assisted campus dining at about 60 schools around the country—from New York University to George Washington University to Babson College, where he has served since 2015. Now the campus executive chef at Babson, Williams manages a staff of 110, including 20 chefs, and oversees every aspect of campus dining, including Trim Dining Hall, Olin Café, Roger’s Pub & Grille, retail locations at Reynolds Student Center and Babson Commons, as well as campus catering.
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How challenging is it to keep menus fresh to meet a variety of needs across campus?
“I’ve done it for so long now. It’s Year 28, so I know what people are looking for, balancing the time of year and the time of day. We try to stay at least two or three weeks out. Our senior executive chef, LeeAnn Makara, who started in February, writes most of the menus at Trim to feed 1,500 people at lunch and dinner, and I help her and make my suggestions. I write all the other menus throughout the campus, including the catering menus, but John Pagano (senior director of dining services) and our management team review them and offer their suggestions. Sometimes I get a little carried away.”
How does Babson innovate to meet students’ expectations?
“Our students have grown up around good food and know what they want. We follow trends on social media and use feedback tools to gauge new additions to our menus. The team gets excited to try new dishes and has fun with the execution. We also do a lot of partnerships with student groups, and that allows us to switch up menus quite frequently. There are also two registered dietitians on the team, so that helps us understand the specific ingredients students look for. Most importantly, our door is always open, and we strive to put out a hearty, good, healthy meal and offer something for everyone.”
“Instead of just serving food, we’re incorporating their suggestions, and we’ll even do interactive events, where we teach students to make pasta or other dishes.”
Dennis Williams, campus executive chef at Babson
How does Babson’s large international student population influence your team’s work?
“It influences it a lot. When international students go home or when any student goes on an international vacation, they try new things. What they have over there, they want to bring it back here. So, then I go do some research and suddenly we’re making a new rice pita or an eggless pudding. To accommodate, we have an all-Greek station, called Mezze in Reynolds, with different proteins and small dishes. We’ll pop in other options such as pho bowls or Korean kimchi. We also work with students and different clubs for Trim takeovers, where they write their own menus that might include authentic cuisines from India or Africa.”
How has campus dining changed over the years?
“Twenty years ago, when I was doing this, it was easy: Just feed the kids and get them on their way. Now, students are way more adventurous. They’re more educated on sourcing products and sustainability. It’s actually helped me a lot. By being here and working with the students, I now know a lot of different spices, different fish and beef cuts, things I never would have even thought about using. That comes from the students. Also, everyone—the students, faculty, and staff—plays more into it now. Dining is such an important part of the social and educational experience. Now it’s more interactive. Instead of just serving food, we’re incorporating their suggestions, and we’ll even do interactive events, where we teach students to make pasta or other dishes. It all helps build community around food.”
What are the most popular entrees or dishes?
“Chicken parm. You cannot buy enough. Chicken parm settles ’em down. You do all the craziness you want, and they appreciate the crazy stuff, too, like the tuna nachos and things like that, but chicken parm, they’ll talk about it, tell you how great it was. I can make it as upscale as you want, but they just want a breaded chicken breast, sauce, and cheese. If that’s what you want, I’ll give you chicken parm.”
Two More for Dennis
What does Babson mean to you?
“Babson means family and working together. They want to be a partner with us. They really do. Babson is one of these places that is really helping with food service. They really want to be number one. They want to be the best at what they do. To be here, you have to be that way.”
Right now, what are you …
- Reading? “The sports news. I’m a big sports fan.”
- Watching? Cooking shows on Rhode Island public TV on Sunday afternoons.
- Listening to? “I have a whole list of music I listen to on my drive back home to New York. It depends on the day. It could be jazz or classical, or some days, it could be very loud.”
- Doing in your free time? “I try to sleep and enjoy a little sports.”
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