The Man Behind The Food

by Mark Anderson | 4/2/15 7:28pm

Peter Chojnacki is FoCo’s “menu maker” — he is responsible for organizing FoCo’s meals.

It doesn’t take long after matriculation for students to realize that there isn’t an overwhelming number of on-campus facilities to choose from. Students at various universities, particularly those in more urban areas, often have a wealth of culinary options, with local grocery stores and restaurants around their respective campuses offering potential alternatives to on-campus dining. While Hanover offers a handful of restaurants, students at the College are largely confined to the dining options provided by Dartmouth Dining Services. With near monopolistic power in the College’s food market, one of DDS’s most important responsibilities — and one that most directly affects nearly ever student on campus — is choosing menu options that appropriately meet the students’ needs.

Peter Chojnacki resolves that problem.

You’ve probably seen him in the Class of 1953 Commons, and you’ve probably forgotten him. Invariably clad in his blue dress shirt and unwavering smile, Chojnacki often blends in with the other employees of FoCo, unseen by many students as they pace between the Ma Thayer and World View stations and back again. In all honesty, when I first met Chojnacki, nothing in his unassuming demeanor gave the impression he may wield influence over what many students are choosing to eat each day.

But what a mere glance won’t reveal is that Chojnacki is responsible for making decisions that affect the lives of every student here at the College. His influence surrounds us. But his presence remains unseen.

While his official title is FoCo’s board plan manager, Peter Chojnacki is essentially the cafeteria’s “menu maker.”

Love Chicken Mondays? Chojnacki is your guy. Not thrilled about the pickles on your cheeseburger pizza? Send your letters to Chojnacki.

As the largest on-campus dining location and the one with the most diverse menu options, no other dining option sees the same influx of students coming through its doors each day as FoCo. Chojnacki needs to feed thousands of mouths each week — and he needs to provide the variety and healthy options that many students have come to expect from their school cafeterias.

“Are you Mark Anderson?” he inquired when I walked up to him before an interview. Judging by his smile, you might have guessed Chojnacki had just won the lottery. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it since my mother picked me up from the airport at the beginning of winter break.

After a few moments in Chojnacki’s office, it became clear that he takes organization to heart. The only items on his desk that weren’t fettered in place were three stacks of paper — all perfectly parallel and adjacent. The piles on the left and the right appeared to be personal, handwritten notes. The middle stack, though, is what interests us, for it contains the fruit of Chojnacki’s labors — an itinerary of foods that would be served in FoCo. Not just for the current spring term, mind you, but plans for many terms to come.

Chojnacki, who has been working at DDS for nearly two years, said each dining establishment on campus has its respective staff that writes its menus. Novak Cafe, for instance, has its own personnel who determine its menu, while the Courtyard Cafe has another, entirely independent group that oversees its own.

At FoCo, the menu selection process is quite simple. First, the staff determines a list of foods that they will serve during each term.

“We have a seasonal menu cycle, so we’ll have a different basket of menu items for the fall, winter, spring and summer,” Chojnacki said.

These items are chosen prior to the start of each school year, based on the staff’s expectations for availability of various foods. Though these predictions are made quite far in advance, Chojnacki said that they’re rarely surprised — this isn’t the sort of job that demands game-time decision making. Rather, it demands a great deal of energy, seamless organizational skills and intimate knowledge of the industry.

DDS culinary director Ron Moore, who helps Chojnacki write the menus, walked me through some tricks of the trade.

“If you’ve been in the business long enough, you know that fresh asparagus is going to be outrageously pricey in the winter and that strawberries will also be expensive and mushy during that season,” Moore said.

Once Chojnacki selects the ingredients, he uses this predetermined basket to craft a menu and detail when and how the foods will be served.

The menu-writing process is far from simple. Crafting a menu that’s appetizing, incorporates a variety of different healthy options and meets the variety of students’ dietary needs and restrictions, not only on each given day, but for the course of an entire week, takes a great deal of time and effort.

“It takes a good week, maybe two weeks to prepare one week’s menu from scratch,” Chojncki said, as he described the process of both planning out and preparing the menu items at FoCo.

Chojnacki isn’t just a meal planner, though — he’s also a boss. He knows how to run an efficient, tightly-knit operation and simultaneously show his employees his appreciation.

Ekene Aguolu ’17, who has worked in the dish room for all but one of his terms at the College, said Chojnacki was “a really nice boss.”

“When we would talk, he would always ask about how my classes were going,” he said.

Aguolu reminisced about the time he spent working at FoCo during our interview, saying “I really loved working there.”

Elijah Soko ’16, who previously worked under Chojnacki as a dishwasher in FoCo, said Chojnacki marries efficiency with humor, which she said makes a big difference in the dish room.

“One time he just kind of joked like he was going to throw something at me, and I just kinda ducked,” he said. “Afterwards he was like, ‘Wait, wait I was just joking!’”

To those who work with him, he’s a boss and a mentor. But to many students, his impact may not be obvious. Still, if you think food here matters, then you’ll agree that Chojnacki’s influence permeates student life. Even though he’d never ask for it, he deserves recognition.