If you’re a student at the University of Texas at Arlington on a meal plan, chances are you’ve met David Patton. He’s the head chef (that’s his official title) and three days a week he holds food demonstrations in the university’s all-you-can-eat dining hall.
The demonstrations are part of the Maverick Dining Teaching Kitchen, a special space at the heart of the dining hall that was developed to educate students and help them engage with food and each other. The island, added during the renovation, features a large screen, an eye-catching menu and a grill station on one side. 10 chairs are provided for the student participants.
Students do not need to register or even know about the demonstrations ahead of time to participate. They just sit at the teacher’s kitchen counter when Patton cooks to watch and eat together. (Students may also request takeout.)
The teaching kitchen concept was developed by Compass Group North America. The university’s dining system became involved as part of a broader effort to make the dining experience special. Freshmen and other students who live on campus are required to purchase a dining program, says Shawn Armstrong, local area manager. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and meaningful.
“Our goal for Maverick Dining at UTA is to give them an authentic experience,” Armstrong says. “What we have here is a great addition” to the traditional dining experience. The greatest benefit of the kitchen teaching program is that it helps make the dining room “not just a place of service, but an experience. There are benefits to your meal plan that go beyond just convenience and speed of service.”
LeeAnn Irland, marketing manager, notes that the teaching kitchen is part of a larger effort to make the dining experience memorable with “monotony breakers” like food demons. They also hold several events each semester.
The teaching kitchen is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with short demonstrations taking place three or four times each day. Patton has partnered with Chef Maja Gajic to plan upcoming demonstrations based on Compass Group’s extensive list of teaching kitchen recipes. On Mondays, they highlight the main recipes. On Wednesdays, they focus on recipes from famous chefs. Good Fridays focuses on health and healthy eating.
In the celebrity chef category, Ireland notes two dishes that have been particularly popular. The first was Guy Fieri’s Trash Can Nachos. Students reacted with glee as Patton lifted a giant can to reveal a spectacular tower of chips and melted cheese loaded with toppings. The second was a campus visit by Chef Jet Tila, who made a guest appearance to serve up a fusion of Thai and Texas barbecue, followed by teaching kitchen demonstrations.
Students are also attracted to other creative subjects with great taste. For their Baja Shrimp Tacos, the students assembled the filling into hollowed-out pineapple halves. On their day full of smashed baked potatoes, students could choose Italian, Texas or Hawaiian style toppings. Cajun dishes are in regular rotation; the prawn boys were a particular favourite. And they gave thumbs up goat cheese crostini and pumpkin no bake energy bars.
Monday and Wednesday demonstrations are flexible; Patton and Gaich plan them just a few weeks in advance. The Friday demos are scheduled a little further out to coincide with their nutritionist’s monthly wellness topics that focus on superfoods and other good-for-you ingredients.
Patton works alone much of the time, preparing the ingredients, setting up the station, cooking, serving, and recruiting and engaging with students. For particularly complex dishes, a staff member will join him to help.
To implement your own kitchen teaching program, Armstrong suggests first identifying a staff member who has the energy to connect with students. (He describes Patton as “lightning in a bottle.”) Once you’ve found an engaging personality on your team, determine the best location for your demonstrations. Armstrong also notes that both Patton and Gaich have enough autonomy to do what they think will connect best with students.
In the end, it all comes back to the student experience. “We want to rise [the dining] experience,” Ireland says, emphasizing that they want students to come to the dining hall for more than just a quick meal. They would like to feel like “fun things are always happening. There are ways to get involved. There are ways to connect with foodies and chefs and nutritionists and connect with each other to build those friendships and those memories. This is very important for us.”