Thousands of students flock to the UGA dining halls every day, but most go there to eat. Members of the Student Culinary Team, dressed in bright red smocks, are there to work alongside professional chefs to learn about food preparation and the food industry.
“They’re very hands on,” says Snelling Dining Commons Manager Bryan Varin. “We give them guidance, but we get them to the point where they can make a recipe from start to finish.”
The team is made up of eager students who express an interest in food preparation. Many plan to pursue careers in the food industry, but a few of them just have a passion for cooking.
“I love being part of the whole process,” says Kristin Evans, a senior international affairs major from Alpharetta. “When I’m making a cake I’m there from beginning to end. I get to mix the dough and pull it out of the oven when it’s all finished.”
Varin invited Evans to join the team as a sophomore after she volunteered to help in the kitchen during an event. He and Oglethorpe Dining Commons Head Chef Darnell Tate select members of the team on a case-by-case basis. Evans fit the bill because she displayed both leadership skills and a love for food.
“They’re held to a higher standard,” Tate says. “All of our employees are held to a standard, but these students have something they should be especially proud of.”
Tate started the program at Oglethorpe two years ago after he noticed that student employees were often confined to one area of the kitchen. The idea was a quick hit among students and soon Varin started a team at Snelling. Within the next year, all four dining halls will have student culinary teams.
Although they don’t receive course credit, students earn a certificate after one year in the program. Most return year after year to gain more experience in the kitchen.
“I want to go work in the food industry when I graduate,” says Will Toms, a junior from McDonough majoring in consumer foods. “I actually got into a lot of culinary schools after high school, but I decided I would rather come to UGA.”
“We do everything from chopping produce to baking cakes to rubbing down meats,” he says. “Sometimes an ingredient you need isn’t there so you have to ad lib a recipe, and I love doing that.”
Student Culinary Team member Will Toms cooks in the kitchen while preparing for lunch at Oglethorpe Dining Commons.
Toms started cooking in high school when he and his friends opened a catering business, but working on the culinary team has made him comfortable with larger crowds.
“It took some adjustment to go from serving 50 turkeys to hundreds of turkeys,” he says. “But with the training they give us, pretty soon you realize it’s in you.”
Evans also credits the large scale dining hall operation as the most challenging and rewarding part of being on the team.
“On nights when we’ve served 1,300 people in an hour it gets tough to keep food out for kids to eat and to make sure their favorite foods are out there,” she says. “You have to be forward thinking. On chocolate chip cookie day you have to have extra chocolate chip cookies.”
Planning ahead is just one of many skills Evans has honed while on the culinary team. As a senior member of the bakeshop, she organizes recipe preparation, delegates tasks and teaches new student employees the ropes. With flour on her face and questions from every direction, Evans patiently leads other student employees and rarely stops smiling.
Although Tate designed the program to teach students more about food, he says their role in the kitchen teaches responsibilities that will be useful in any work environment.
“It involves working under pressure, teamwork and people skills,” he says, “and it combines all of those on a day-to-day basis.”
Armed with these skills, the culinary team members act as leaders in the kitchen, but Tate says they don’t stand out because of individual accomplishments.
“It’s the fact that they work together, always as a team,” he says. “Other students notice that. They come to me and tell me they see that team in the red shirts, and they want to be a part of it too.”
To learn more about food services at UGA, go to http://www.uga.edu/foodservice.