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Last Thursday, August 25, the class of 2020 arrived at Saint Michael's College in Colchester. Some hailed from nearby towns, others from around the state, country and world.
The scene was familiar to anyone who's ever attended move-in day at an American residential college. Nervous, backpacked young adults schlepped suitcases, trunks and boxes from hatchbacks to dorm rooms. They made eye contact with new friends they hadn't met yet; some side-eyed hovering parents whom they no doubt wished would just leave already. By early afternoon, everyone — students, staff and parents — was hungry.
Behind the scenes, the St. Mike's dining staff made the shift from its summer doldrums to full-on orientation mayhem. During the break, an abridged team caters meals for a couple hundred summering students, athletes, priests and professors. Now they were serving lunch for 1,500 people and, in the evening, throwing a freshman-welcome cookout for everyone on campus. For the next week, campus activity would crescendo until the entire college community returned for the academic year.
Most of the college's full-time residents eat three meals a day on campus — that's almost 5,000 meals per day. Making sure each meal comes off without a hitch is the job of dining services general manager Brian Roper.
Roper joined the college in 2015 after more than a decade at the University of Vermont. Then and now, he worked for Sodexo, which oversees food operations at most of Vermont's colleges and major hospitals — about 34,000 meals daily when school's in session.
As Roper rose from the post of UVM cook to that of Sodexo's district chef, local food became trendy off campus. In 2010, Vermont Farm to Plate convened state officials, nonprofits and farmers to develop a 10-year plan to increase local food production and consumption. In 2014, Roper helped launch Sodexo's Vermont First program, which works with farms and distributors — such as Black River Produce — to connect the dots between local farms and institutional kitchens.
Two years into the program, St. Mike's sources nearly 15 percent of its food from Vermont farms and producers. Roper says he expects that number to continue to rise as farmers scale up and plug themselves into the distribution chain, and as that chain becomes accessible to a broader range of farmers and consumers.
In the meantime, Roper's just trying to make sure everyone gets fed — and doing his best to educate budding locavores as they shuffle through his dining hall. Last Thursday, the chef spared some time for an early-morning chat with Seven Days about sushi, can-do attitudes and the "freshman 15."
SEVEN DAYS: What did you have for breakfast today?
BRIAN ROPER: I had some scrambled eggs and a bowl of fruit.
SD: Where did you grow up, and how did your family eat back then?
BR: I grew up in Bristol, Conn. I was your typical kid. I grew up on peanut-butter-and-jelly until I started doing some of the cooking at home — and realized that broccoli and Brussels sprouts taste good.
SD: How did you get into cooking?
BR: My mother didn't work until I was about 12, and then she and my father both worked. So I'd come home from school and prep dinner. I'd be calling Grandma on the phone like, "How do I know if the potatoes are done?" I realized that cooking was fun, and I was pretty good at it. After high school, I attended a one-year culinary program and started working at hotels in Connecticut, getting real-life experience.
SD: What are some of the differences between restaurant and institutional cooking?
BR: It's so much planning and preparation — the execution part is really making sure you have all your mise en place ready to go. You think you're busy serving a couple hundred people in a restaurant one night, but you don't know busy until you're doing 1,400 people in two hours.
Granted, [every dish is not] cooked to order, but we have seven stations where a chef stands there and cooks on six burners. When the meal starts, you're not sure what the mix will be. Like, Is everyone going to go to the grill?
Today, we're making grilled-chicken Caesar salad. We'll probably do 450 of those, and as people come up, we'll build salads. During the school year, we roll sushi during lunch. I don't know of any other program that does that to order. People said I was insane when I wanted to do that, but everyone — kids, staff, professors — loves it.
SD: How do you supply sushi-grade fish for 1,500 people?
BR: Oh, we don't do the raw stuff. It's smoked salmon, crab stick, barbecued eel. But we have the nori and we make all the sushi rice, and it works really well.
SD: How has university cookery changed since you started?
BR: The students are definitely more aware of what they're eating, and many choose to eat healthier. They'll go for plain grilled chicken instead of a chicken patty. Or they'll say, "Excuse me, can you use pan spray in my pan, instead of oil?" We have nutritional information on the signage [for each dish], and they're paying attention. They ask more questions, and they know food better than you or I did when we were 18 coming into college.
And the local food. Local is probably 25 percent more expensive than conventional, but you do it when you can. We work closely with Black River Produce and Black River Meats. They'll call and say, "We have a stockpile of flatiron steaks; we'll give them to you for 30 percent off." Someone [in the kitchen] will say, "That's not on the menu." And I say, "OK, let's change the menu."
I have this willingness to try things that are outside the box — I'm never going to say no because I think it's not going to work. If you don't try, you won't know. And maybe you can't do what you want to do 100 percent; maybe you get to 50, 60, 80 percent. But you're going to get 0 percent if you don't try.
SD: With the increased emphasis on fresh and local food, have you noticed an impact on student health?
BR: The classic "freshman 15" [i.e., the notion that freshmen gain 15 pounds after arriving at college] is true, and it's twofold. When you lived at home with your parents, did you have French fries or pizza every day? Also, you're away from home, in a new place with people you don't know. What do you do? You eat.
But there are always healthy and not-healthy choices. If you didn't have burgers, you'd have an uprising. If you didn't have salad bar, there'd be an uprising. I meet the students, and they all want to tell me their favorite thing in the dining hall. And 17 out of 20 students say chicken patty night. I'll ask them about the sushi, and they're like, "Yeah, the sushi is great. But the chicken patty ... it's convenient and it's so good and we just love it."
SD: You've put a lot of energy into getting local food into university kitchens. How did that happen?
BR: When Farm to Plate started, I was on one of the aggregation and distribution groups. I was at this conference talking with producers about what it takes to get [their product] into Sodexo. It's price point and availability — and just because you think you have enough product doesn't mean you have enough. You can't come sell to me at my back door. You need to go through the distribution hub.
For example, Kimball Brook [Farm organic] dairy came to us five years ago. They wanted do organic milk in glass bottles. They wanted us to recycle and send the bottles back. I was like, "Whoa, that's not going to work on a college campus."
But our partnership with Black River Produce has been great. They're willing to take a chance on products that aren't tested and true. And once a producer gets in with them, Black River can sell [their product] to any business they distribute to.
So a lot of it was relationship building and phone conversations. I was basically looking at administration from both sides. We made [local] a priority. It was, Let's incrementally increase local sourcing — as Black River can handle it, and as the farms can handle it, and as we can afford it.
SD: What are some challenges of this process?
BR: Some of it is availability. Last year we were going to use Chappelle's Vermont Potatoes, but they had a horrible year — their crop never really came in. So you may work to do the right thing, and it may just not be available.
We run [almost] every college [kitchen] in the state. When you start to do the math, it's like, We don't have enough of that to make it work statewide. If we had the volume of available produce [during the school year] that we have in July and August, our local numbers would be 10 times what they are now. But the academic year doesn't line up with that.
And some smaller growers and distributors want to drive their own trucks onto campus. They don't want to work with the trucks that are already coming to our [loading] dock. But you've got a kid on a longboard cruising to class with headphones on, and there's an 18-wheeler trying to back up. So we have to limit the number of trucks coming onto campus.
SD: What's next for institutional food? Where's all this headed?
BR: I don't know where it's headed, but the local piece will definitely continue to grow. Rome wasn't built in a day, so we're not going to get to 20, 40, 50 percent local food overnight. But this movement from farm to institution is only growing, and I think you're going to see more money being spent in the next three, five, 10 years. You can't really look past that because things change, but I don't see that going away, ever.
SD: How important is consumer education?
BR: It is so much more important than anyone could ever possibly imagine. When you [place signage in the dining hall], maybe 10 percent of the people read it. But if there's a picture showing the grower, people pay attention. To say that a picture [is worth] 1,000 words is a cliché, but it's so true it's not even funny. Place [a picture] where the food is being served, and people start asking questions. You can hear the passion in their voice.
SD: What's new at SMC Dining this season?
BR: This season we're going to exclusively use Peaslee's Vermont Potatoes, once they're up and harvested. Annie Rowell, our Sodexo-Vermont First coordinator, worked with the farm and connected the dots with Black River Produce and got them into the system.
SD: It's Sunday night, and you're relaxing over a drink. Where are you, and what are you drinking?
BR: I am home with my wife and kids. Maybe having a seltzer. Day to day, you work hard and a lot, so family is really important. Depending on the time of year, we grow corn and chicken and veggies. So if you can celebrate family and food together, and teach your kids the value of real food, that's fantastic.
SD: Go-to occasion dinner destination?
BR: Recently, we've been going to ArtsRiot Truck Stop — Taco Gordo is out of this world. We go to Sneakers [Bistro] sometimes, and to Farmhouse Tap & Grill occasionally; I have an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old, so there's not a lot of going out and sitting down. That's why I love the truck stops.
SD: When you're not working, any hobbies?
BR: If I'm not working or with family, I'm out fishing.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Farm to Dining Hall"