What’s on Your Plate?

April 13, 2020

With all the variables to consider when deciding where to go to college, you already have plenty on your metaphorical plate.

So what about the food that literally will be on your plate?

Scott Turley
Scott Turley, executive chef

We chatted with Scott Turley, executive chef at Grinnell College, to learn about his approach to food and the options open to students.

First, if you’re imagining a single queue with two or three different choices, like an elementary school lunchroom, that’s not it.

Grinnell’s Marketplace Dining Hall appeals to diverse tastes and perspective through the variety and flexibility of several different stations.

At the sauté station, for example, they do pasta and many other things. “It can now be turned into just about anything we want to do,” Turley says, “right down to salads, tossed-to-order, to wraps to a risotto bar to hummus. The Korean bibimbap is very popular.”

For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, several foods are made to order while you wait. The options are plentiful.

Plus, the menus change each semester. “We try and go seasonal,” Turley says. “We have a fall/winter theme, and then we try and lighten things up for spring.”

To develop menus, Turley says, “Our culinary leadership group gets together every two weeks, and we talk about what's working, what's not working. And then, what are the trends and what can we do differently. We start developing recipes from that.”

Diverse Perspectives on Food Are Welcome and Appreciated

Ideas come from the dining staff as well as student suggestions.   

“I've gotten recipes from the students for international dishes,” Turley says, such as a Thai dish, pad see ew (stir-fried noodles), from Uzma Daraman ’15. “We have the student come in. We work with them on quantifying that recipe and getting some accurate measurements.”

Next, chefs test the recipe a few times. They usually start with four servings. Once they scale it up, “we have that student come back and try it to see if it's really what they've experienced in the past,” Turley says.

Sometimes, in the process of scaling up the recipe, something happens chemically that affects the flavor. Adjustments have to be made.

“Butter chicken is one of those,” Turley says. “It has to really evaporate to develop the right flavor and sauce. So we’ve had to make some adjustments to the liquid measurements and get things cooked at different rates so that it comes out pretty good.”

Favorites like chicken parmesan and baked ziti can stay on the menu for years. Dining Services prepares 1,000 portions of baked ziti for lunch (about 3,600 meals are served per day). Alvin’s sweet potato pie, based on a recipe from Alvin Irby ’07, is offered every Thanksgiving.

Shaking up the Routine

Mardi Gras king cake being sliced
King cake made for Mardi Gras

About once a month, Dining Services offers a themed meal. For example, on Superbowl Sunday the staff prepared 700 pounds of chicken wings to serve 1,000 people. Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras are typical spring semester themes.

Besides providing a tasty, out-of-the-ordinary treat for students, themed meals are a professional development opportunity for Grinnell’s chefs. Each takes the lead for an assigned theme, allowing them to work on their communication, organization, and culinary skills.

“My goal for each member of the culinary team is to help them develop their skills to become an accomplished executive chef in their own kitchen,” Turley says.  

Serving Individuals and Appreciating Their Differences

More than 90% of the food is made from scratch. “We absolutely know what's in everything we serve,” Turley says. “So when a student needs to know or wants to know, we have very clear answers.”

Local foods are also a priority. “If I can get a high-quality item at the peak of its freshness and it’s not been trucked all the way across the country, I would rather have it,” Turley says. “It's worth the extra money.”

A recent example is 300 pounds of local blueberries, much of them turned into jelly. Dining Services also buys hand-milled flour from an alum, John Wepking ’06, who farms with his wife Halee Wepking in southwestern Wisconsin. The flour is used in sourdough bread.

“On Fridays at the Spencer Grill we offer sourdough bread, freshly baked whole loaves for sale,” Turley says. “Really high-quality bread, not available anywhere else in Iowa.”

Turley has high standards for the food served at Grinnell. “I think a student comes here, and they can be anything they want to be,” he says. “We try and do that with the food. We try and make it so that it's everything they want it to be.”

Scott Turley is a certified executive chef and American Academy of Chefs fellow.


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