When the Culinary Support Center (CSC) opened in August, it completely restructured how Illinois State University manages food production. Naturally, this created a new set of opportunities for Executive Chef Matthew Horton and the culinary team, who sees the CSC as the path forward for expanded culinary excellence on campus.
“Developing more complex food safety plans and logistical systems takes time and requires a great team of individuals brainstorming ideas on best practices,” Horton said. “The CSC allows us to generate more ideas and push our culinary program higher and higher.”
The CSC, located in the Watterson Dining Commons, develops recipes, prepares food items, and delivers products to several campus dining locations. The project began construction in March 2018 and was completed during the summer of 2019. The work involved the renovation of existing facilities and built two floors of new areas to house the CSC. The first floor contains a cook-chill production area and a cold prep room. The second floor contains a bakery, test kitchen, and additional seating. Motorists and pedestrians passing Watterson Dining Commons from the corner of North Street and Fell Avenue will see the new seating area framed by signage that reads: “Illinois State University.”
Adam Feaman, assistant director of the CSC, said centralization is essential to ensure students’ culinary standards are met.
“Our customers come in and want to see that the food they like is made the same way every time,” Feaman said. “Having production in one space ensures consistency.”
The CSC’s new cook-chill production system is the key to maintaining that consistency. Located on the ground floor, the facility contains a smoker that can prepare up to 350 pounds of meat at once and three 100-gallon cooking kettles. Once prepared, the product is moved to a cooling tank, which drops the temperature to 34 degrees from 180 degrees in less than an hour. From there, products are prepared for storage and transported to the various dining venues on campus.
The centralized bakery, located on the floor above, produces cookies, bagels, muffins, and other baked goods for the campus community. A large dough proofer and retarder allows dough to prepare overnight and be ready for bakery staff to work with in the morning. The bakery also contains new state-of-the-art ovens, mixers, and bagel makers.
Production at this scale requires Illinois State’s chefs to continually rethink and improve their recipes.
“For example, cooking a product like a sauce is a lot different when you are preparing it in a standard pan or pot compared to a giant kettle,” Feaman said. “You might realize that you need to use more or less of certain ingredients. One of the big things now is that there is much more science to what we do.”
“One of my favorite parts of this project is to watch how seemingly insurmountable challenges are tackled and overcome because of the great thinking by our team,” Horton said.
Most of this experimentation takes place in the new test kitchen. Staying responsive to customer feedback and being ahead of the curve on the newest culinary trends was an important part of the planning process for the CSC, which made the development of a test space critical.
“We test based on what our customers are asking for,” Feaman said. “Sometimes products change from manufacturers. They may discontinue a main ingredient of an item. Sometimes we discover that manufacturers are making a product that has certain benefits such as eliminating potential food allergies. The test kitchen allows us to experiment with new products and still maintain our highest standards.”
The test kitchen is also essential for expanding culinary education at Illinois State. CSC staff plans to outfit the space with cameras in order to produce cooking and food safety presentations to share online. The space will also be used for hands-on instruction in academic programs such as the newly created food studies program.
These upgrades have already gone a long way in helping Event Management, Dining, and Hospitality staff achieve its goals of controlling food safety and consistency for the dining program. Horton is excited for what the CSC can do in the future.
“We are already producing products such as pasta, sauces, and grab-and-go items,” he said. “Our goals for the rest of the school year include developing additional smoker recipes, creating new soups, increasing scratch baked goods, and expanding retail items.”
To see what is on the menu at Watterson Dining Commons and other dining locations on campus, visit Event Management, Dining, and Hospitality’s website.