Meet Carleton’s Debra Swenson: Cooking Curries, Meeting Farmers, and Canning Her Own Food

When we Fellows visit college campuses to host educational events, we love going behind the kitchen doors and meeting the hardworking people who make Bon Appétit Management Company great. Here, I’d like to introduce you to Debra Swenson, lead cook at East Hall at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Debra has been with Bon Appétit since we opened Carleton four years ago, but she’s been working in food service at Carleton for 32 years.

How did you get into this business?

When I was 15 years old, I started working at a restaurant supper club doing dishes. I thought it was really fun to working with the chefs. Afterwards, I became a waitress and realized that I love to serve food — good food. I learned so much from the chefs that I didn’t want to leave the food service world.

What’s the best part of your work?

What I like most about being at Bon Appétit is that I feel like I’m always growing and learning about new, different foods and cooking techniques. It’s also just fun feeding people on such a large scale. I like getting to know the students as freshmen and then watching them grow a little bit every year. I love getting to cook different kinds of food every day. I also like the deadlines that come with being a cook. This makes me really organized.

What’s your favorite thing to cook?

Curry – green, red, all kinds. Even though I’ve been working in the restaurant and food service worlds for most of my life, I actually never tried curry before I started working with Bon Appétit.

Any other foods you’ve learned about while at Bon Appétit?

All of the different types of grains and how to use them, from quinoa to faro. Also, dried beans. Before Bon Appétit was at Carleton, we used canned beans. Overall, my favorite foods to cook are the many types of vegetarian foods that we serve at the Wild Thymes station in Dining East.

Which of Bon Appétit’s sustainability commitments means the most to you personally, and why?

Our Farm to Fork program. I’m a big fan of Thousand Hills Cattle Company’s beef, Ferndale Market’s turkey, and all of the vegetables from the Carleton Farm. The students drop off the produce they grew us directly to us daily. I’ve loved getting to know these different producers in the area personally and creating relationships with them.  

Who are your culinary (or non-culinary) role models?

One of them is Eric Rasmussen, Bon Appétit at Carleton’s Operations Manager. He’s a role model for me on both a personal and professional level. Eric has been with Bon Appétit for a long time and really knows what he’s doing. He’s incredibly professional, but he can also kid around and relates well with people. I also really like that he started out as a cook and has worked his way up to be a manager. It’s not just like he just jumped in and doesn’t know how to cook.

Another role model is my mom. When I was little, she had me help her every day in the kitchen. I think that’s why I became a cook. I had four brothers and a big family to feed. One of my biggest passions today is feeding people.

What are some foods you can’t live without?

Wild salmon. Chicken. Steak. Clearly, I’m not a vegetarian. Although the vegetarian food at our Wild Thymes station is delicious!

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I like to garden. At home, I grow everything from apples to cherries to currents to walnuts. We also tap our own maple trees for syrup. I love processing the foods that I grow. I can jellies, jams, vegetables that I’ve grown. I haven’t bought a can of tomatoes from the store in 35 years. I always grow so much food that I have to give a lot of it away. Outside of work, I also enjoy golf, ping pong, camping, travelling, and just being with people.