Creating a new culinary footprint

Lenkin Family Collection

Photo credit: Greg Johnson

Dining halls on college campuses are not generally known for their exquisite cuisine, five-star meals or mouth-watering dishes. Pizza is a mainstay, along with hamburgers and other fast food. And cereal. Lots and lots of cereal.

New at Penn this semester is the Bon Appétit Management Company, an onsite restaurant concern offering locally produced, made-to-order fresh foods, and a commitment to environmental sustainability.

Marie Witt, vice president of the Business Services Division, says Penn chose Bon Appétit as its campus food service provider because the company serves meals that are fresh, healthy, flavorful and appealing to the diverse tastes of Penn students. Also because “they could prepare those meals in a way that supports Penn’s commitment to sustainability.”

Bon Appétit, with more than 500 locations nationwide, purchases 30 to 35 percent of its food from within 150 miles of their locations.

Fedele Bauccio cofounded the company in 1985 after working as group president for the former Saga Corporation. At the time, he says, college campuses were serving so-called “mystery meat” and other mediocre offerings.

“[They] would have green beans in water that were cooked at 10 o’clock in big, six-inch hotel pans, and a lot of cafeteria food,” he says. “Students were being shortchanged; the whole university system was being shortchanged. Food was just a necessary evil at that point.”

Bauccio observed that corporate America was being fed the same way, so he decided to create a restaurant company that would work in the contract environment. Bon Appétit began by feeding corporate America, primarily companies in Silicon Valley.

As companies such as Oracle, Netscape and Yahoo! grew, Bon Appétit grew, too. In the late 1980s, college presidents took notice and inquired about bringing Bon Appétit to their campuses.

To create great food, Bauccio says he realized that he had to attract really good chefs. And to attract the kinds of chefs he wanted—those who could think for themselves and who really understood flavor and texture—he had to, as he says, “loosen up the rules.”

“So what I basically said to myself was, ‘We’re going to start a company that has a culture centered around great food, which means that the chef is going to be the cornerstone of the operations,’” he says. “‘We’re not going to have menu cycles, we’re not going to have recipe boxes. We’re going to take a clean piece of paper and we’re going to create something that’s unique for every location.’”

Clarence Thomas, the Houston Market sous chef, says the freedom Bon Appétit gives its chefs is extremely important to him. “I’m very passionate about my food,” he says. “For someone to say, ‘We believe in the hard work, the years you put in, we trust your knowledge’ ... it’s huge to me.”

Bauccio credits his chefs with persuading him to buy locally. He says it was a culinary act, not a political one. Around 1990, his chefs came to him and said they were losing flavor on their plates because of their food sources.

“They said, ‘You know, a tomato doesn’t taste like a tomato in the wintertime, a peach doesn’t taste the same way and an apple doesn’t taste the same way because we’re getting it from cold storage and it’s being shipped over,’” Bauccio says.

Even though he knew it would be more expensive, Bauccio agreed to begin sourcing products from local farmers and artisans. The initiative was formalized in 1999 as the Farm to Fork program, a company-wide commitment to shop locally.

At Penn, the 30 or so Bon Appétit managers and chefs are responsible for seeking out local suppliers. “Not only the produce people, but the honey people, the dairy, the beef, it’s all of those purveyors that we can find in a local community,” Bauccio says. The chefs must also ensure the food is safely produced, with no runoff issues. Penn’s recent Eat Local Challenge, held Sept. 29 across campus, focused on food made solely from ingredients within 150 miles of campus.

“Fresh,” says Christopher Smith, executive chef of Houston Market, “is the best. It’s healthier for the students.

“It’s kind of like comparing a fish you get from the market as opposed to catching it, filleting it right on the boat,” Thomas says. “It’s just that much better.”

Joel Blice, executive chef for the entire campus, says the fresh ingredients represent flavor. The local items are picked at their peak of freshness and not before.

“We’re also concerned about the carbon emissions, so the closer to our home base that we can purchase, the less fuel will be used to get the products to us,” he says.

Bauccio says he recognized early on that if they were going to do right by the communities they served, they also had to support the environment, so he established a variety of strict environmental initiatives. All the company’s seafood is purchased in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sutainability guidelines. Bon Appétit uses only pollock and wild salmon either flown in from Alaska or frozen at sea, rather than cod or farm-raised salmon.

The company serves only eggs that meet Humane Farm Animal Care animal welfare standards, and does not serve any protein with non-therapeutic antibodies.

The beef, pork and poultry they source are fed only vegetarian feed, and the company buys bones to make its own stock.

Bauccio says agriculture in the United States today is broken in a lot of ways. With Americans facing issues such as the safety of food and the high obesity rate, he says what people put in their bodies, and how companies source their products, is critical. He is not out to dictate what people eat, but wants people to be aware of their choices.

“I think we have a responsibility to message what we do in the right way,” he says, “so that they can make intelligent choices in terms of food.”

Originally published on October 15, 2009