It’s nice to gain national recognition for the best college food in America, but that’s not what drives the chefs, servers, bakers and other Bowdoin Dining Service employees to source the freshest ingredients, make the most delicious bibimbap, or greet students by name.
“We just want to be number one in the eyes of the students,” Director of Dining Mary Lou Kennedy said. “They’re the ones we see day in and day out.”
On Tuesday, Princeton Review released the 2014 edition of “the Best 378 Colleges,” and once again, Bowdoin food comes out on top. The Today Show featured the story Tuesday morning.
According to the people who work in Dining, it’s not competitiveness that lies behind the professionalism and quality of the service and food at Bowdoin: It seems to be something closer, really, to love.
“We’re passionate about food in general and we project that out to students,” said Adeena Fisher, manager of dining retail operations here. “Food is love.”
“We’re [the students’] home; their sustenance,” Kennedy said. “We take care of their health needs. We try to have them be happy students. …We put our heart into it.”
Associate Director of Dining Operations Michele Gaillard added,” There’s a legacy here of employees who’ve worked here for a long time. They love being Bowdoin employees — it’s not just a job.”
Employees such as head chef David Crooker, who started at Bowdoin as a fraternity house chef in 1988. He travels regularly around the world, bringing back recipes and ideas from exotic locales. “We want to keep our guests happy,” Crooker said. “We have an audience that’s here all the time. It’s important for us to have a lot of variety to keep everyone satisfied.”
Patty Brewer, who works in Thorne Dining Hall and at Bowdoin Express, the college’s convenience store, said she tries to remember every student’s name, writing them down when she learns them along with a description of what the student looks like or what they eat. Also, she added, “We try to remember what they like or if they’re allergic to things to watch out for them.”
Brewer credited her colleagues for their nurturing stance toward students. “We have such a caring crew,” she said. “The cooks, they want their food to be presentable and tasty.” From the baker to the meat cutter, she said, “everyone takes pride in their work.”
One of the ways Bowdoin Dining tries to please is by adding variety to its recipes, updating the decor and accommodating shifting tastes. In the coming year, in response to student demand, more salads will be featured as entrees, no longer playing “second fiddle” to hot dishes, Kennedy said. “Today we had a beautiful Cobb salad in a platter in the salad bar,” ready to eat with avocado, chicken, egg, bacon and blue cheese, she noted.
Jack McGee’s Pub and Grill and Bowdoin Express, both in Smith Union, are also focusing more on fresh, local food. The pub will offer more salads, include more local ingredients — such as Pineland Farm cheese and locally made veggie burgers — and increase its vegan options, according to Fisher. The store will sell more prepackaged fresh snacks, such as watermelon, celery and carrot sticks, and blueberries.
In this way, and in many other ways, Bowdoin Dining responds to students’ wishes, Kennedy said. Dining maintains a robust comment card tradition, encouraging students to air their opinions on new recipes or food they would like to see offered. “We’re always looking for feedback from students — and they’re vocal,” Brewer said. “The comment cards carry a lot of weight.”
In the end, the good food helps create a welcoming ambiance for good conversation and good company. Faculty members regularly invite students to meet with them over lunch. “For some faculty, I swear the dining room is their office,” Kennedy said.
And for students, the dining hall is a respite, Gaillard said. “Dining could be considered an antidote for the rigors of what’s going on in your life,” she explained. “We think of ourselves as a place to go to rest, relax and enjoy each other.”