It started as a tiny flame. With a dash of rum, the flame erupted into an orange blaze within a frying pan of saut‚ed prawns, cutting through the garlic-laden air. Just the result newly appointed Executive Chef Robert Quesada was looking for: he wanted to introduce his new staff with a bang.
Such was the scene at Founders during lunch on Jan. 18. Quesada held a meet-and-greet cooking session to introduce himself and two other new chefs to the Mills community. The session featured dishes made by each new chef, as well as a cardboard display highlighting culinary changes underway at Founders.
The flames in the cooking pan were Quesada’s way of attracting everyone’s attention. “I wanted to wake people up,” he said. “It was a way of letting them know that things are going to change!”
Quesada wants to ensure that good food is always the norm at Founders. “I want to put the ‘wow’ back into your food,” he said. He and his fellow new chefs, Roy Garcia and Tarleton Crawford, have begun implementing a variety of changes they hope will raise the culinary level of a Founders meal.
The new chefs were hired after the previous Executive Chef, Theresia Gunawan, and several cooks left toward the end of last year. According to Dorothy Calimer, Catering Manager, Gunawan left to pursue a career in acupuncture while other members of the staff retired.
Roselia Zendejas, Founders Manager, said she hired Quesada because, “I truly feel he has a grasp for what we want to accomplish here, to go more in the direction of fresh food.” Tarleton and Garcia are old friends of Quesada from the Sequoyah Country Club and were hired earlier this month.
Individually, their backgrounds extend beyond the kitchen. Garcia used to be a professional drummer and recalls performing at Mills years ago. Quesada is the cousin of singer Sheila E and was her bodyguard while she worked with Prince during the Purple Rain tour.
Zendejas said the greatest changes for her have been the number of new faces and the new menu. “For the first time in many years, we have a whole new team,” she said. “We are [also] seeing what Chef Bobby refers to as ‘the freshness of our menu,’ cooking more from scratch and beginning to use seasonal vegetables.”
Quesada said his meal plan centers on non-processed food and variety. “I feel like things were stagnant here and centered on cycle menus,” he said. “I want to install new freshness [and] create more of a restaurant atmosphere than a cafeteria.” Garcia shares a similar belief. “I’m interested in more saut‚ed foods and freshness in general.”
Some of the changes underway include using leaner meats, getting rid of processed inventory, trying sugar substitutes and preparing ethnic foods such as Greek dishes and pad thai. Quesada said he is trying to style the menu around people’s suggestions because “they’re the ones paying the bill.” The team would also like to add new condiments to the salad bar such as freshly made dressings and stuffed olives.
Many students are excited about the changes yet would like to see more done. Demir Bircan, an EF student, said he observed a change in the seasonings. “It has made the food tastier,” he said. “It is much more interesting and different.” Senior Mary Whalen agrees that the food is getting better yet isn’t enchanted with everything. “This is a definite step up from last semester,” she said. “Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t.”
Nicole Hudley, a freshwoman who works at Founders, is pleased with what she’s seen both outside and inside the kitchen. “It’s a more equal and cooperative environment,” she said.
The new team said they have been getting mostly positive feedback but understand there is still much to be done. “We’re still trying to work out all the kinks,” said Crawford.
Quesada encourages students to submit suggestions and be prepared for changes. “Just wait until you try my soul food in honor of Black History Month!”