Jen Ramirez, a second cook, was scooping fingerling potatoes by the handful from a colander and quickly slicing them. She’d been at this task since 7:30 a.m. and it was now late Wednesday afternoon. Ramirez stood between cartons of Greater Taters brand specialty potatoes on one side, and on the other bins full of halved fingerlings in water (so they wouldn’t turn brown).
“It’s always hard to find storage space,” she said, gesturing around before adding with a slight shrug, “We have a pretty strong team. We always figure it out.”
Welcome to pre-Commencement kitchen prep, where being one of three people tackling 400 pounds of potatoes, or 300 pounds of asparagus, is just part of the job. Over the course of this week, the kitchen staff (some 40 people in all) will tackle literal mountains of food, as well as vats of dressings and sauces, everything that’s required to serve upwards of 4,000 people for the weekend.
That’s on top of serving regular meals for 300 students, faculty and staff in the week leading up to the big event.
“I’ve been having dreams about rolls,” admitted Executive Chef Stefania Patinella as she did a last-minute check of the massive list of food items and who was in charge of what. This is Patinella’s first Commencement (her executive sous chef, Colin Hoyt, is also new this year) and she’s relied on the extensive records from previous events, which detail quantities, volumes and timing.
You can’t save too much for the last minute, but you can’t get too far ahead either, said Patinella of the delicate balancing act between preparation and freshness: “You can’t freeze half a cherry tomato.”
To a certain extent, an enormous event like Commencement presents few culinary surprises: Patinella and her staff must appeal to a large volume of people with the tried and true dishes. So, Commencement weekend is a time for caprese and potato salad; for local asparagus; for vegan zucchini cake; for crowd-pleasing tortellini salad and grilled chicken.
Seen through a different lens, though, Commencement—and then Reunion, which comes a week later—turns the kitchen volume up to 11, especially in terms of quantity. That tortellini salad? The staff makes 600 pounds. The grilled chicken? They’re making some 2,800 pieces, which requires two people at the grill for three days, eight hours a day, just to get the seasoning and grill marks. The chicken is then pan roasted again the day it’s served.
Director of Dining Services Joe Flueckiger said that, through it all, the staff keeps in mind the joyous, celebratory nature of the occasion they’re preparing for—something that he thinks comes across in the food.
“Our staff really cares about these events. They know how important they are to the community and to the seniors, and they want the seniors to feel special,” Flueckiger said. “The team is so seasoned, they really make it look easy.”
With deliveries coming in on Wednesday, a task list on the kitchen wall outlined the first items to prep: 20 gallons of Caesar dressing, seven gallons of apple cider vinaigrette and nine gallons of white bean artichoke hummus. Once assembled, these items would go into a 20-foot refrigerator truck parked outside for the occasion.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to consider. When you serve that many people, you have to be incredibly safe with food,” said Executive Sous Chef Hoyt as he ran a finger down sheets of paper on the wall outside his office, noting the schedule of prep and the placement of tables. “A lot of forethought goes into doing it well.”
As for Commencement leftovers, which traditionally amount to around 20 percent of the total, Hoyt said that sandwiches and similar items would be donated to local soup kitchens and shelters. Dressed salad and disposable silverware would go into the compost for Book & Plow Farm.
“There’s not a lot of waste,” Hoyt said, adding of the containers, “Even the pre-bought dressing is recyclable.”
And after Reunion, does the entire kitchen staff simply collapse with exhaustion?
Hoyt laughed. They actually use that week, with the dining hall otherwise closed, to do a deep clean.
“There’s no downtime in dining services,” he said. “Any week that we’re off, we’re in here scrubbing and getting ready for the next wave.”