Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Friday, December 21, 2012 / 2:40 PM

Dining Services at Wash U: Behind The Scenes with Chef John Griffiths (part two)

Dining Services at Wash U: Behind The Scenes with Chef John Griffiths (part two)

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Jenny Agnew's two-part article on the Dining Services at Washington University. For part one, click here.   

Since much of the conversation revolved around animals and humane practices, we couldn’t resist asking Griffiths (left) about his personal meat-eating choices. He responded, “When you eat meat, you have to realize you’re engaging in a violent act. You are. As a carnivore, you’re engaging in a violent act. You don’t eat unless something dies. You can’t get past that.” The answer, then, for him, is getting meat from somewhere like Rain Crow because they’re “one of those farmers that raises the animal all the way to the point that it’s killed.”

Labeling is an important part of the humane-practices equation that’s often misunderstood by the average consumer. The “certified-humane” label (below right) means much more to Griffiths than “organic” because it guarantees the animal was treated well throughout its life. “To me, personally,” he elucidated, “it doesn’t make a difference if that farmer had to give that cow an injection of antibiotics to make it healthy because you don’t want an animal to suffer just so that it can be [labeled a certain way].  For me, on the most basic level, I just want to know the person and have trust that what he’s doing is right by the animal and right by the environment.”

For those who often forgo meat because they too want to do right by the animal and environment but can’t always be sure about humane and sustainable practices, you’re not alone. Griffiths eats much less meat than he used to, acknowledging, “Even as a chef, it’s still hard to find meat in a retail environment. I know I can go to certain farmers’ markets; I know I can call Peter [at Rain Crow] and say, ‘I need an extra two dozen strip steaks to put in my freezer at home.’ I have more access than any consumer does, but I still find it difficult at times to do that—as I want it or need it—without significant amounts of planning, so I just kind of decided that I won’t.” As a result, Griffiths feels “very healthy.” He went on, “I want to make sure I make the right decisions.” This means eating meat at local restaurants like Elaia and Sidney Street Cafe, where he trusts chef-owners Ben Poremba and Kevin Nashan, respectively.

Griffiths’ desire to make the right decisions is one of the reasons why he’s perfect for the job at Wash. U. In addition to the university’s emphasis on local, sustainable food, it also participates in an impressive recycling and composting program. Reminders about what can and should be composted are everywhere in exhibits about to-go boxes and compostable serviceware and different receptacles for waste (left). (We admit that we carried our cardboard coffee cup out to our car on our first visit with Griffiths for fear of depositing it in the wrong bin.) 

Compostable materials from the ubiquitous yellow bins spread throughout campus are delivered to the commissary, where the pulper (below left) crushes everything, water is extracted, and the leftover waste product is picked up by St. Louis Composting.


The emphasis on sustainability also includes the biofuel program with Kelley Green Biofuel, which was started by university alum Kristopher Kelley, in 2009. Fryer waste oil from the outlets is collected and then combined with diesel fuel and sold back to the university as biodiesel fuel, on which all newer campus delivery trucks run. Truly, when one begins to see all the connected links in the chain that is food production, the head spins. A juicer, for example, in Café Bergson not only provides healthy, fresh juice for students (above right), but acts as a model of the sustainable practices campus-wide: everything is composted—the boxes the oranges come in, the leftover peels/rinds, and the serving cups.

Whether it’s gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, low-fat, halal, or kosher meals, the dining outlets offer something for everyone. Students can also access the online “Webfood” system to build a meal or even rent cooking equipment for in-residence use. Under the Director of University Nutrition, Connie Diekman, M.Ed., RD, LD FADA, a robust program provides nutrition information about the food, and “Ask the Dietician” and “Nutrition Bites” put the students directly in contact with Diekman’s staff. Moreover, all seafood served at Wash. U. follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Guidelines. The handy, wallet-sized guideline cards sit near the outlet check-outs, along with other material about sustainable and healthy options. “We always try to let [students] know what we’re doing and why we do it,” Griffiths explained. 

After travelling to the Northeast back in October to tour several other universities with innovative dining service programs, Griffiths believes the university is one of a kind. He and his staff of 250 make everything from scratch except for the chicken fingers and French fries, most of the bread, and the donuts. At the main commissary, we saw where all of this cooking and baking takes place. The giant vats (left) for preparing soups and stocks —part of the “cook-chill” system—took up an entire room, and walk-in refrigerators, with boxes of local produce and meat, showcased the tremendous volume of what goes out in one day.  

In our favorite location, the aromatic bakeshop, Griffiths tore off a piece of baguette for us (“Don’t tell Companion that we make some of our own bread,” he joked), and it was good—a nice crust surrounding the pillowy loaf. He also proffered an individually wrapped spice cake that we enjoyed later. Racks bearing cupcakes, cookies, gooey butter squares, brownies, and scone dough ready for baking occupied one corner of the bakeshop’s walk-in. Ripening bananas dominated another area, and Griffiths said that the pastry chefs bake an “inordinate” amount of banana bread to make use of the Fair Trade bananas, which come only by the pallet.    


Griffiths credits his staff with elevating the dining experience at Wash. U.: “They’re all smart and they’re all dedicated, and you don’t get that in a lot of places, so we’re lucky to have so many people who get excited about making food and putting it in plastic containers and shipping it out every day.” As he looks toward the future, he shared that the university will soon add both pour-over coffee and ramen bars to dining services. Instead of relying on instant ramen with dried noodles and MSG packets—what’s  become the cliché of college life—students will have access to fresh noodles, homemade broth, and a variety of add-ins (one of Griffiths' "trial" ramens is below). The chef would also like to grow the bread and pastry programs and get involved with the baking. “I love to be in the middle of it,” he said.  And so he is—in the middle of something wondrous that’s paving the way in this brave, new world of university dining.  

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