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Through the Kitchen, Behind the Counter

Uncover the food production at KUA

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SAGE Dining Service Staff together

SAGE Dining Service Staff together

Stella Chen

Stella Chen

SAGE Dining Service Staff together

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Surprised by the Chinese food at the convocation dinner? Excited for the tacos and nachos in Doe on Tuesday nights? Upset that it’s pasta again for Wednesday’s lunch?

The salad bar is a great option for students looking for a quick and nutritious meal.

Opinions about dining hall offerings abound, but not many students know who decides what will be served at Kimball Union. Could it be Head of School, Mr. Schafer? Assistant Head of School, Mr. Weidman? Or are there some mysterious scientists at the Food and Drug Administration concocting our menus?

Students can make their own salads and/or partake of the cold salad options on the line, like potato salad or cold pasta salad

The answer is that SAGE Dining Services, a chain company that is dedicated to serving independent schools and colleges, has been in charge of Kimball Union’s dietary programs since 2013. From formal occasions to designated theme dinners to the daily three meals (even Sunday brunch), the SAGE staff work incessantly to prepare the next meal.

Stephen Trage, who started with SAGE at Kimball Union four years ago, sat down to answer some common questions regarding the dining service.

The toaster area is open all day, and recently SAGE has added a “Gluten-Free Zone” to accommodate students with gluten intolerance or sensitivities.

Many students are curious about how the menu changes over the school year; Trage explained, “We change the menu three times a year. [The first period lasts] from the beginning of a school year till Thanksgiving break as a term, although I think we extend to New Year this year. Then [the second cycle goes] from that time till spring break, and after spring break [the final period runs] till the end of school.” According to Trage, the menu is written by two people: he and an assistant chef, Christian, provide different perspectives. The menu usually lasts for four weeks, and it rotates “as many times as it needs to.”

Another popular (and fast) option is the cereal bar, where students can choose a cereal and add their preference of milk (2%, fat free, or low-fat chocolate) to their bowl.

Taste and nutrition are both priorities when the chefs design the menus. Trage used to also be the chef at a hotel during his first three years at KUA , and the experience instilled in him a sense that “[the food has] got to taste good as [well as be] visually appealing.” Although he personally cooks much less than he used to, Trage is still “hands on [in the kitchen].” He said, “I give out my opinions during the tasting . . . and Christian, and our current executive chef, Zach, all have professional backgrounds, so I am confident that the three of us are able to put out the products that are tasty and certainly nutritious.”

Trage and his assistant Christian working in the kitchen: behind the counter, the kitchen is buzzing with activity.

Trage knows that one of the biggest challenges is balancing student preferences with good practice. “One of the SAGE’s underpinnings is having nutritious meals,” added Trage, “because [the students] eat here all the time. You guys need the variety. As much as I can say, cliche, everyone likes pizza and chicken fingers, but I can’t serve them all the time. ”

While a long line can form during the lunch period, students are eager to access the hot food line. Staples from steamed squash to chicken to rice can be found here.

Moreover, there is a standard for SAGE to adhere to in terms of nutritional guidelines. “[A standard serving should include] two proteins [including one meat protein], a starch, [and] two vegetables; one vegetable has to be steamed and one has to be green. And then [there needs to be]a vegetarian option,” Trage outlined.

Therefore, the serving of typical fast foods like fries and burgers is occasional, and that is “a personal preference” of Trage’s. “I want to have it, but I also want it for it to be special and not get old…Plus there is a lot of food I want you guys to see and try. ”

SAGE often crafts exotic cuisines for the community, yet some of the feedback is not always great. To respond, Trage explained that “We try our best, from my knowledge, and from the other guys, to be as true as possible to what it should be. But it is tough; we do not necessarily have the right ingredients, or sometimes we have substitutes to replace.” Additionally, personal perception plays a big part in food tastes, and students tend to have drastically different views on the same dishes. International students judging a “culturally traditional” SAGE meal might find themselves having a very different opinion than their domestic student friends.  “[Food popularity and student preferences are] much more noticeable for us in the kitchen when cooking international cuisines… and we take these things into consideration.”

Formal dinner means dessert: churros were served at a formal dinner

Trage has also considered trying to popularize the vegetarian choices, but first he revealed that “there is no way that I can’t serve some sort of meat. So we will always have something [for the vegetarian].” Trage clarified that SAGE “is trying to be responsive to [requests of additions and alternative options] and have more vegetarian options available.” With the advent of “Meatless Mondays,” Trage has largely limited animal proteins on the menu for certain days: “Particularly on Mondays, like every Monday, is pretty much almost meatless Monday.”

Michael Schafer, the Head of School, also addressed the importance of formal dinner, especially the first one after convocation in the beginning of school year. The literal definition of convocation is to “come together”, and Schafer stated that it “actually re-centers the community around specific goals, but it also carries over the issues from the prior years.” The chance to reflect is a staple of formal dinners, and the randomized seating enables new conversations.

Mr. Schafer likes to stay connected with the KUA community. Here he is speaking at an All School Meeting.

Schafer pointed out that in the past, convocation contained some religious components, and that is why that the Academy would ask John Gregory-Davis, Meriden Congregational Church pastor to come over and speak. “The importance of the spiritual component, whether it is religiously based on one faith or not, is sort of [about] having [an experience that] is beyond our human enterprise.”

No matter how busy the serving area gets, the back of the kitchen is always busier: supplies, ingredients, cooking implements, and serving tools are out and ready for use.

Both Trage and Schafer responded with similar answers to questions regarding why KUA has consistent food showing up during formal dinner tables. When the current format of formal dinner started at Kimball Union four years ago, SAGE had been in charge of the formal dinner dishes.  Cooking for a community of four hundred people in one short time slot comes with myriad complications. “A lot of ways that we craft the menu is for speed, because you guys typically finish like in an hour… like the other night, there were thirty-four tables I think, and we can get all the tables down within ten minutes,” Trage explained.

“I think the point of dinner is not all about food, but it is more about sitting together [bound as a community],” Schafer clarified. “Most of the seated meals are usually the ones that can be easy to serve.”

When asked about any staple dishes that are specific to KUA, Schafer and Trage said that there was not currently one, but it would be beneficial to have an iconically “KUA” meal item for formal dinners, particularly since it would highlight the theme of tradition. Schafer also encouraged students to work with the Student Senate to come up with more ideas of food offerings at the school.

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