Mulligatawny to mole: Tackling teenage tastes … and winning

A passion for authenticity, quality and variety drive our menus, say the managers of Exeter’s dining halls. 

Chloe Lindahl
August 9, 2018
Heidi Dumont, Melinda Leonard and Michael Como.

Heidi Dumont, Melinda Leonard and Michael Como. 

No matter what country we’re from or what languages we speak, we’re all united by food. No one understands this better than Exeter’s dining crew.

On a bright, sunny day in early August, Exeter’s two dining hall managers — Michael Como and Heidi Dumont — joined head of dining services Melinda Leonard for a lunch of roasted vegetables and fish in Elm Street dining hall. They discussed the joys and challenges of Exeter’s community-based dining halls, where students, faculty and their families, and staff gather for meals that are all prepared on-site. Always eager to innovate, the trio’s excitement is palpable as they talk over the sounds of hundreds of Exeter Summer students contentedly eating and laughing around them.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What eating trends are you seeing right now?

Dumont: We’re doing a lot with plant-forward cooking. Plant-based diets are now a lifestyle with millennials and Gen Zers who are “flexitarians,” which means they are primarily vegetarian but they occasionally eat some meat. Plant-forward is all about how you incorporate sustainability, inclusivity, environment and climate action into your meal plan.

Leonard: It’s important to know what’s going on in our world today. We focus heavily on sustainability. Through our Red's Best program, for example, we serve locally caught fish twice a week. That’s exciting because we’re serving local fisherman and getting the story out to our community.

Grab and go has become hugely popular on campuses, but here we still want you to come to dining hall, sit down and enjoy your meal. Because Exeter is a community. We want you to take time and be mindful of each other. It’s become harder and harder to appreciate dining in this busy world.

Q: Feeding over 1,000 students, and keeping in mind diverse tastes and dietary restrictions, must be challenging. How do you manage?

Leonard: We focus on variety and choices.

Dumont: We have over 5,000 recipes — everything from grains, fish, vegan and gluten-free — in our own recipe database. We also have a systems manager who gives us feedback on our food usage, so we understand what people are consuming.

Leonard: It’s such an international base. Our students come from all over the globe. It’s important for us to be authentic. We have staff from Greece, the Southwest, Mexico and Ghana. That wide variety of talent from all over the United States and the world helps us reach the goal of authenticity in our recipes.

Q: Tomorrow is International Day, with a special dining hall menu. What are you expecting?

Como: Fun! Good food and music. We want to create a festivallike atmosphere. We offer sushi, Asian dumpling boxes, Danish dilled shrimp, patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), loukoumades (Greek honey donuts) and street food fare from around the world. We gather as much input as we can from the students, faculty and staff ahead of time and factor that into our special menu.

Q: Where do you get new recipe ideas?

Dumont: Everywhere! Food service management magazines, vendors, conferences, personal likes and dislikes.

Leonard: We often have people come to campus and give us culinary training. We also like to go out and discover how to make things. Last year we drove into Boston to taste an authentic bánh mì Vietnamese sandwich. We’re now making them here in the dining hall.  

Dumont: We have a special events calendar that helps us interject fun things, like root beer floats or milkshakes. And there are all kinds of national days that we can pick from like National Calzone Day. Taco Tuesday is huge! If there aren’t tacos there’s an uproar!

Q: What’s in the works for Exeter’s dining halls next year?

Como: Elm Street is getting a furniture overhaul to create a more workable space, so if you want to bring your computer or bring work, you can.

Leonard: We’re changing it up to create more of a community space. We’ll have relaxed seating along the fireplace, some high-top tables, some booths, and some tables for two people. And of course we’ll keep some long tables — where students like to get together with their dorms or athletic teams for meals. The new tables will be easy to move, so we can better and more flexibly use the space.

Q: How do you keep everything running smoothly?

Como: We complement each other. Heidi is good at X, Melinda is good at Y, and I’m good at Z. We learn from each other. Our motto for the year is collaboration, with each other and the community. We’re going to continue to get better, always trying to elevate ourselves and we’re never quite satisfied.