'Tis the season to buy chicken—as long as you don't want wings.
Ken Cardone, associate director of the Dining Service, recently discovered that because so many chickens are produced for their wings during Super Bowl season, other parts of the bird are less expensive than usual this time of year.
"We use thousands and thousands and thousands of chicken breasts," Cardone says.
For the Bowdoin Dining Service, prepping a chicken breast is more labor intensive than dumping out of bag of frozen meat. Deep within the bowels of Thorne Hall's basement, past hallways lined with crisp staff uniforms and a four-foot tall potato peeler, a meat shop is in daily operation. Here, a meat cutter grinds beef and bones chicken, starting at 5 a.m.
"By operating your own meat shop, you have absolute quality control," Cardone says.
"I never buy ground beef at the supermarket unless I hand them my own beef," he adds, explaining that his previous work as a butcher makes him want to oversee the entire meat cutting process.
Such a "make it from scratch" mentality is pervasive throughout all operations of the Dining Service. Much of the pasta that is consumed in the dining room exists only as flour and some other ingredients just hours before. Bakers arrive to the shop in the upstairs of Thorne at 4:30 a.m. to prepare fresh muffins, sweets, and other bread products. Each morning for about 40 minutes, every surface in the bake shop is covered with uncooked Kaiser rolls, which must bench-rise before baking.
"If we don't want to serve it to our family, then we're not going to serve it to our guests," Cardone says.
The approximately 12,000 meals per week that are served in Thorne Hall require remarkably little storage space for dry goods. The room where canned foods, tea, and spices are kept is no bigger than the common rooms in most dorms on campus.
Instead of keeping nonperishable items, much of the meat and fresh produce is acquired locally from Maine farms, and nearly 20 percent of all purchases come from local sources. The concept of "food miles" may have only recently garnered attention because of global warming concerns, but the Bowdoin Dining Service has bought food from nearby locations for years. When Cardone began working at Bowdoin almost 20 years ago, seafood was purchased from neighboring fishers, and blueberries were bought from a stand down the street.
"It's been a culture on this campus for many, many years," he says.
The Dining Service also obtains herbs from its backyard—literally. What started as sprigs of mint planted by some cooks behind the kitchen a few years ago has flourished into a full herb garden.
Each week, Cardone convenes with unit managers, chefs, the purchasing manager, and a vendor, to design the menu for the week that is about a month away.
In planning a menu, several factors are taken into account. The group considers the foods that are in season, diners' preferences, and budget constraints, as well as keeping in mind what staff and equipment is available on a given day. Recipes are selected from a database of nearly 3,000 choices.
Though meals are planned far in advance, sometimes unexpected obstacles, such as broken machinery or a clogged steamer can call for last minute changes in the menu.
"You have to have enough flexibility in your menu to bounce back from that stuff," Cardone says.
Other times, the menu changes with the weather.
For the Dining Service staff, a rainy or chilly forecast means that extra soup must be prepared to last through the meal. During the winter, diners in Thorne and Moulton typically consume twice as much soup as they do at other times of the year. Forty gallons of chicken soup is not always enough to make it through dinner at Thorne.
For the massive quantity of food that is prepared for each meal at Thorne and Moulton, the amount of leftovers are minimal. Although soup is prepared in large batches, other menu items are typically cooked 20 to 25 servings at a time. At the end of a meal, there may be some extra individual ingredients or soup, but in general, other prepared items on the menu are consumed entirely. The items that do remain at the end of a meal are delivered by a student organization to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.
But its not just edible items that diners go through; mugs, plates, silverware and paper cups tend to disappear as well. According to Purchasing Manager Jon Wiley, diners in Moulton and Thorne used 89,000 paper cups last semester, which comes out to about 4,680 each week.
"Pulling the cups is not an option," Cardone says.
A few years ago, the paper cups were removed from the dining halls, but Cardone says that they "had to replace every mug in the facility," because diners took ceramic mugs instead of bringing their own travel mugs or forgoing the "to-go" drink.
"We're trying to be more environmentally friendly, but that's a tough one," he adds.
Due to their heavy use and tendency to turn up missing, each piece of silverware is replaced about twice each year.
In his time at Bowdoin, Cardone has noticed trends in the way students eat here. During the first couple of weeks of a new semester, students generally consume up to 20 percent more food than they do for the rest of the semester. He has also noticed that younger students are generally less receptive to trying new foods than older students are.
"Your tastes are really refined by your senior year," Cardone says.
In addition to noting changes in the way students eat as they progress through Bowdoin, Cardone says that students today make "healthier and more varied" food choices than they typically have in the past.
"Nobody would eat edamame before," he says.
Cardone also notes that the consumption of seafood has increased four or five times in the past several years.
Before dinner, the kitchen in Thorne is thick with blanching broccoli and enough simmering soup to fill a kiddie pool. As the music from radios tuned to different stations mix in the middle of the room, a sweet scent of hot fudge mixes with the tangy waft of chipotle sauce.
Here in Thorne, it seems every piece of equipment is big enough to walk or jump into. Even the woks could double as laundry baskets. Preparing about 12,000 meals each week and catering for up to 2,200 events each year requires a kitchen that runs like clockwork.
About 40 Bowdoin students work in Thorne. Cold Food Production Supervisor Jody Griffin has enjoyed working alongside students and says that they are often amazed at what goes in to preparing a meal.
"I just think it's nice that some of the kids have had a chance to work with us," Griffin says.
Russell Trinka, a dishwasher, says that although the atmosphere is fast-paced, it isn't overwhelming.
"Just keep up with what you're doing, and it should be fine," Trinka says.
Asked about the staff, Cardone beams and describes its members as talented, committed, flexible, and "a lot of fun."
"We have the most incredible staff in the world," he says.