DDS works to make '53 Commons efficient and inclusive

by Peter Charalambous | 9/10/18 9:00am

The Class of ’53 Commons, Dartmouth’s major dining hall, is a familiar setting for most students. From throwing as much food as possible in a to-go container during finals week to enjoying a reunion meal with friends after a long off term, the dining hall has served as the venue for countless student interactions over the years since it opened. While students may be used to the seating and the food options, few students have seen the inner workings of the dining hall, which produces thousands of meals for a variety of dining venues across campus.

While line cooks and chefs work on the main floor, the kitchen underneath ’53 Commons, which is equipped with walk-in freezers and fridges, supply rooms, a central kitchen and in-house butcher shop, works at full capacity. Many of ’53 Commons’s offerings are shipped into the dining hall already prepared. Some cold products, like bean salad and tabouli, are already prepared, while other products like the dill-cucumber salad are produced fresh daily. Another part of the kitchen downstairs prepares sandwiches and other products for some of Dartmouth’s cafes such as Collis and Novack.

About 85 percent of the food at ’53 Commons comes from a supplier known as Performance Foodservice in Springfield, Massachusetts. Apart from that company, ’53 Commons also sources from UNFI, an organic food supplier in Boston, as well as local farms such as Edgewater Farms. In total, Dartmouth Dining Services spends around $8.5 million each year on food supplies, according to DDS director Jon Plodzik.

While students consume the breakfast products, the chefs behind the counter are both supplying fresh stocks of breakfast food and preparing raw ingredients for lunch. While some products like chicken nuggets, fries and various vegetarian patties arrive at ’53 Commons from a supplier already prepared, a majority of the larger dishes, especially at the Ma Thayer’s Station start off as original recipes. Chefs use a software known as Computrition to ensure that recipes are scaled up properly to account for the large demands of the dining hall. Each product offered by ’53 Commons has a Computrition page that explains the exact ingredients and methods for preparing the dishes.

In a sense, Computrition allows the chefs at ’53 Commons to cook in the same way anyone would cook a meal for their family at home, with the only difference being that the chefs at ’53 Commons will prepare much more food.

“Our base recipe is for 24 people and so we may make sixteen pans of Lasagna for dinner,” Plodzik said. “You may make a single casserole dish for dinner, but [it is the] same process.”

While Computrition allows ’53 Commons to produce consistent products, it does not necessarily limit the chefs’ key sense in the kitchen: taste. When preparing the final stages of a garlic-butter pasta dish, executive chef of ’53 Commons Chris Kaschak brought along half a dozen spoons. Tasting the pasta with other chefs and cooks, Kaschak carefully adjusted the spices in the pasta to produce a satisfactory dish.

Computrition also provides DDS with nutritional information on all menu items. This allows them to post accurate information online for student access, which is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We want to provide excellent customer service, the highest quality and most nutrient-dense options we can find,” director of culinary operations Ron Moore said. “We’re leaning toward more healthy options, trying to reduce the size of portions so they are not as big.”

By offering more grains and vegetables and decreasing the amount of large meat options, DDS is changing options to help students make healthier choices. Additional policies like the “take less, waste less” campaign initiated by DDS attempts to both decrease harmful waste and increase healthier eating habits.

Beth Rosenberger, the DDS staff dietitian, says that it is ultimately up to students curb unhealthy eating.

“There’s lots of healthy options, but you kind of have to put a little bit of thought into it,” Rosenberger said. “You have to eat a little bit from all the food groups all the time to get the most and the best out of what you’re putting into your body.”

Besides addressing healthy food options, ’53 Commons faces other challenges inherent to such a large operation. Though food consumption is tracked on a daily basis to reduce the amount of waste, there are inevitably leftovers after shifts. Since most food cannot be served again and may be contaminated from being on a buffet line, ’53 Commons composts the remaining food instead. DDS also gives some of its leftovers to Dartmouth Helping Neighbors, a program that supplies the local Upper Valley Haven food shelf program.

’53 Commons is also trying to find new ways to increase student visits to its dining hall. With its group-centric seating and large crowd sizes, the dining hall may be an intimidating place for students to eat. But Dartmouth Dining Service is trying to change that.

“We’ve redesigned a lot of the seating in here to create kind of a different ambiance.” Plodzik said. “We realized that a lot of folks want more intimate, smaller dining venues than to sit at a giant table with 36 people.”

Recently, more two-person booths, comfortable chairs with raised coffee tables and four-person seating options have been added to increase the amount of seating styles for students. In addition to new carpeting, the changes at ’53 Commons are met to create a newfound sense of intimacy.

Also, Plodzik hopes to increase students’ incentive to eat at ’53 Commons by increasing the number of swipes available to students and by eliminating the time gaps between meal periods. The new Ivy Standard meal plan, which Plodzik considers a stepping stone to unlimited swipes, allows incoming students to access the dining hall during every meal period and still have funds to purchase food during the “late night” meal period.

While some may claim that this meal plan limits students to predominantly eat at ’53 Commons, Plodzik instead claims that the meal plan is a way to combat inequality between students.

“It’s an equalizer, so to speak, to guarantee that everybody, regardless of economic means, has the ability to eat,” Plodzik said.

All these policies aim to create a different kind of culture in ’53 Commons, one which emphasizes the ability for students to sit down, break bread with friends and enjoy the meal without having to worry about other stresses.

“We want people to take a couple moments every day and kind of connect with the world around him, connect with people,” Plodzik said. “And ’53 is a perfect opportunity.”