Taking Student Dining to the Next Level
Residential dining has traditionally had a bad reputation. Lately, however, there has been a burgeoning nationwide movement to improve cafeteria fare. For an example of a vibrant, fresh, and delicious menu, one need only look to The College of William and Mary and the culinary team led by Executive Chef of Student Dining Denis Callinan ’95, PC III.
“Freshness is key,” says Denis. “We buy cage-free shell eggs, use local produce for all of our salad bars, make our own burgers, and hand-cut our French fries.” The student dining facilities are modeled after a European marketplace and feature authentic, freshly prepared foods. “The overall theme is fresh, friendly, fast, and favorite food. There’s no secret cache of frozen entrées,” explains Denis. “We want our students to relax and respect the art of dining.”
He’s always preferred large production kitchens. “My sister got me into catering when I was 14 and I found I really loved the business,” says Denis. He worked in the cafeteria at IBM in Fishkill, NY while still in high school before enrolling at The Culinary Institute of America. “Cooking was the only thing I was really good at and the CIA was the best place to train for a future in the profession,” Denis says. “From knife skills to sauces to product identification and cooking techniques, the curriculum builds your skills by levels as you move through the classes and you develop your core discipline. The CIA gives you the structure to plan the rest of your career.”
His own career would take him to the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, PA; corporate dining for IBM in Poughkeepsie, NY; and Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. In 2005, Denis made the move to Williamsburg, VA and William and Mary college dining, where he implemented a homemade baking and pastry program. “It’s a great feeling as a chef to know my bread is being made at 5 a.m., used for sandwiches shortly thereafter, and out on the floor for students by 9:30 a.m.,” Denis says. “We have a three-day policy for our baked goods but we rarely have any left to throw away.”
Sustainability is another key component of the dining program. “We compost all organic waste, recycle 100% of our used cooking oil so it can be made into biofuel, and use biodegradable forks, knives, spoons, plates, and cups,” Denis says. “We hire interns to manage our sustainability initiatives and continually research ways we can lessen our carbon footprint.” Understandably, Denis is proud of the fact that The College of William and Mary is consisting ranked among the top 75 Best Colleges for Food in America.
Working with students and staff has added another dimension to Denis’s job. “As I grew in my career, I found I was good at leading people,” he says. “I spend a good deal of time on product ID so my staff understands when fresh products are available and how to use them. When you’re the leader, you have to be the best cook, and that’s why I continued my education with CIA ProChef Certification. At each ProChef level, your skill set is greatly enhanced. And the guidance from the faculty was invaluable to my professional growth.”
“Being a chef—especially if you’re CIA trained—is in a way a recession-proof job,” Denis continues. “People have to eat. You have the ability to take your skills anywhere and the jobs have become more diverse. Whatever you decide to do, you should continue learning and expanding your repertoire. And always take it to the next level.”