Don’t Be Afraid to Dork Out: Secrets of Best Campus Food from Bon Appétit’s Executive Chef at St. Olaf (No. 4)

St. Olaf College is a small but mighty liberal arts college in Northfield, MN, about 45 minutes from Minneapolis. The 3,000 or so students at this Evangelical Lutheran college live on the 300-acre campus, surrounded by farmland and prairies. Although they come from all over America — and the world — there’s one thing they agree on: St. Olaf has great food.

The Princeton Review, one of the best-known college ranking institutions, tabulates surveys from more than 137,000 students from across the country annually (see methodology) on a variety of metrics. St. Olaf has made it into the Top 10 of the Best Campus Food list every year for the past 12 years — an impressive record. Recently it was announced that St. Olaf had climbed a rung from No. 5 to No. 4 for the 2018 list (along with another school served by Bon Appétit, Washington University in St. Louis, which jumped from No. 9 to No. 3).

St. Olaf Executive Chef Matthew Fogarty with the Home station special

Matthew Fogarty has been Bon Appétit’s executive chef at St. Olaf since 2006. Recently he talked about helping to cook up some of America’s Best Campus Food.

There’s no secret sauce.

I’ve been asked what I do differently for years. I don’t know! We’re just trying to do fun food. I think about things kids want to eat that are fun and kind of exciting. We try to change the program up every year, keep it fresh.

Keep surprising them.

Executive Pastry Chef Richard Hayes and my team, we brainstorm a lot. No idea is ever too crazy. I was inspired by this YouTube show my son watches, by Rhett and Link, to start this thing we do on Tuesdays: Will It Taco? We pick a region in the world and research it and then fire it onto a taco. We did Russian Georgia, which I knew nothing about when we started. But it’s on the Spice Trail, it was burned down and colonized by so many empires — they have crazy food culture there. We did these lentil spreads, this steak with [description], it was the food of the region but on a vehicle you could get to your mouth quicker. We shoot it out on social media for feedback from the kids: Did it taco? Turns out Georgia could taco. Most cultures can taco, I think.

That led to something we’re starting this year. My brain wouldn’t turn off one night, I was thinking about our Home station, which is our comfort food station. What if we called it Home State one day out of the week and served food from that state? A dish you wouldn’t expect. I scored 50 license plates for like $250 online and we’re really stoked to be launching that, figuring out menus.

Find the balance between lobster and baked potato.

St. Olaf student Christopher Prokosch with some best-campus chili

I buy really great wild-caught Alaska salmon, and it’s $8 per pound. I can’t serve that all the time. I have to find the balance where I can make up the difference. We do a lot of build-you-own bars; the kids love that. Sweet-potato-mash bar with a bunch of cool toppings they can pick as they go through the line — at the end they can say no one else on the planet has invented this exact dish. We’ve done build-your-own stir fries and fajitas; soup was popular, too: Start with a bechamel base, a Manhattan clam chowder base, an enriched vegetable base, plus various vegetables, proteins, and greens they can choose for us to sauté, pick a rice or some noodles — make your own special beast of a soup.

Make friends from far-off places.

We team up with the international student clubs to do a dinner with recipes they give us from their home countries. We research them and figure out how to do them right, then we menu it and everyone can have it with just a meal swipe instead of the club emptying its savings. If they want to go to some cool specialty place and buy the naan or the injera, great.

Don’t be afraid to dork out.

Even though lunch is just 35, 40 minutes out of their day, we want them to come into this environment and have it feel special. We dork out on it. A couple years ago for National TV Dinner Day, I found these compostable TV dinner trays with compartments, and we had so much fun tricking them out Bon Appétitstyle. Instead of peas, we did edamame and fresh grilled corn cut off the cob. Rich made something like a chocolate molten lava cake. [Entree?] It turned out to be the perfect portion plate, too. I bought this DVD of old commercials from the 1950s to the ’80s, like 15 hours of commercials, that we played on a big screen. The kids loved watching the old Alka Seltzer commercials while they ate their TV dinners.

National Comic Book Day is coming up, and Rich and I are both comic book dorks, so we are super-psyched to be collaborating.

Make wellness fun, too.

We try to dork out on everything, including our wellness education activities. Well-Being Wednesday coming up? Let’s do this! I remember it was sodium awareness month or something, so we decided to look at sports recovery drinks and make our own instead. So we took pineapple, cored it, cleaned it, and froze it so could go through our Champion juicer retaining the pulp, but with an ice-cream texture and consistency. That was our base. Took a bunch of ghost peppers, toasted them, ground them up, mixed that with lime zest and Cajun whey-powder protein with coconut water in it, fresh lime juice, and a little bit of sea salt. It tasted like a piña colada, but underneath there were all these layers of nutrition. Wham! Well-Being Wednesday.

Be fast and nimble.

I came to this job from the restaurant business. When I first heard about the executive chef position, I was like, “A lunch lady job? No thanks.” Then I had a phone interview with thenGeneral Manager Peter Abrahamson. We didn’t even talk about the job: “What kind of local ingredients you using, who’s your lamb guy, who’s your pork guy” — instantly we hit it off relationship-wise. I knew based on that conversation that this job was going to be about food.

Working at a college is dynamic, it is full-tilt boogie from morning ’til night, seven days a week.

There’s always something to do. Having a plan in place, time management, that’s important, we work on it. But you can’t be too wedded to the plan. You got to read your comment cards and be able to react fast. “We want more vegan options.” Sure, you got it. It’s this machine. I love it when it’s crazy busy, controlled chaos, it’s an awesome feeling. Being able to feed 32,000 meals a week to students flawlessly, to get recognition like the Best Campus Food list, that’s an incredible feeling. King Kong has nothing on me!

St. Olaf Executive Chef Matthew Fogarty, Sous Chef Ngoc Nguyen, Pastry Chef Rich Hays, General Manager Traci Quinnell, and Director of Culinary Operations Rafael Perez in the main dining room