Behind the Scenes: NCU Caf
It’s mealtime. You head to the cafeteria, hoping they’re serving one of your favorites. As you enter, you wait in line and glance at the display screen trying to decide what you want to eat. You finally make up your mind and as your turn to get your ticket arrives, your stomach growls. You present your ticket at the counter and it is received by one of the cooks. A few minutes later your food is ready. As you’ve handed the cook your meal ticket or reached to grab your food, have you ever thought about the people on the other side of that counter? Have you ever wondered who runs the cafeteria and from where your food is coming?
Bill Brand, NCU’s own chef director and owner/founder of Ala Carte Food Systems Inc., is the man in charge of everything having to do with the kitchen. His catering service has been in business since the early nineties and his company has been associate with NCU for seven years and counting. Bill originally got an in through working at the Onyx House, a Christian co-op for college students run as a part of Eugene Faith Center’s college-age ministry.
Brand has known that cooking was his passion from a very early age. At the age of 18, when he started working as a dishwasher at a local seafood restaurant and got roped into helping in the kitchen when they were short on staff, he has been interested in being a chef. From there he decided to attend culinary; many cooks start out that way, as an unsuspecting dishwasher getting a chance to work in the kitchen.
Being at NCU, trying to improve the cafeteria and food over the last several years, is something that Brand enjoys. “I think the menu has become more in tune. Before we were here the menus were a little bit esoteric, a little too gourmet. I don’t think you saw a lot of burgers and melts, and pasta dishes, and chicken strips for instance,” he said chuckling.
The catering service also helped pay for a remodeling of the cafeteria years back. Brand said the floor was carpeted and the walls were bright yellow and there was a huge salad bar in the floor, where the round tables are now. “It was very dated and kind of ugly.” The carpet was ripped up and cement put in, the walls repainted, the salad bar removed, and an electronic menu board installed. This project took lots of money, but helped modernize the cafeteria. Though Brand admits now it is almost outdated again.
“We can do most things from scratch and do it pretty well at a price that’s real competitive.” The food is all made from scratch which takes time and many workers. The kitchen staff work hard. A typical day in the kitchen starts at 5:45am, when the early person comes in to get everything going. Another staff member comes in around 7am to cook breakfast meanwhile the early person works in the back prepping for lunch. Another cook joins them later in the morning to prep for dinner. Everyone works the line, at the window for a bit, while students get lunch. Once lunch is over, staff have about two hours to take a break, then they are back in at 4pm cooking dinner.
After a full day of working either in the kitchen or at the office with administrative work, Brand doesn’t usually feel up to cooking dinner. “It’s hard because I’m the more capable cook in our household and it’s obvious. My wife would be the first to say it, although I love everything that she makes and it really blesses me when she cooks. But often I’m not in the mood when I get home to do that. When you’re responsible for the dietary wellbeing of hundreds of people every day, the idea of cooking when you get home is not as fun.” Though he does cook special meals for family get-togethers and claims he has “legendary status” for some of the barbecues he has put on.
Brand met his wife at Eugene Faith Center’s House of His Presence while working a cooking job there. They then had two kids: Emily, now 20 years old and Eric who is 16. Brand doesn’t have any other hobbies besides cooking. He says it is his only passion which is great because when your work and passion coincide, it’s never really work. He loves what he does, working with NCU as well as running the catering business and owning his own restaurant, Alder Street Fish Co. (Which by the way, is fantastic! Go try it if you haven’t before!). He expressed lots of passion in improving even more for NCU.
Hopefully the next steps are to improve the efficiency of ordering breakfast as well as the quality of the breakfast foods. To cut down the wait time, Brand says they want to create a whole new breakfast menu, focusing on one dish each day. As an example Brand said, “Mondays are breakfast burrito days, and really expand that doing like Burrito Boy does where they’ve got the potatoes, the beans, the eggs, the Verde. Really make a good breakfast burrito. Then if that’s all we’re doing and we don’t need to worry about pancakes and omelets on that day we can get really efficient and give you a better breakfast burrito. And on another day do maybe a classic breakfast where it’s eggs any style and pancakes and potatoes, links and bacon and keep it simple. And do an omelet day, which would be the most challenging because of handwritten specifics on everyone’s tickets. ” He expressed interest in experimenting with many new dishes. “The kitchen is all geeked up right now in our efforts to do new things with Mac and Cheese. We want to attempt preparations that are at times edgy and interpretive, such as ‘ Goat Cheese and Smoked Chicken Mac ‘, or just outright traditional but made even more satisfying, like a ‘Baked Mac and Cheese with a Garlic Parmesan Breadcrumb Crust.’”
So not only is Ala Carte working each day to feed the students, they are also constantly thinking of ways to improve the food quality and overall experience with the cafeteria. All of the chefs work very hard. Next time you get your food, make sure to thank them for all that they do for us and are continuing to do!