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One on One: Don Miller

By Steven Hedlund
January 01, 2009

Years ago, "dorm food" wasn't exactly worth writing home about. Simply a means to fuel voracious academics, campus dining offered little in the way of taste and variety. Fortunately, the days of mystery meat and tuna surprise are a distant memory. Today, campus dining is not only a culinary experience but also a learning experience. At colleges and universities nationwide, students learn about nutrition, the origin of food and sustainability in dining halls and classrooms.

The mastermind behind the culinary experience at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., is Don Miller. Like so many accomplished chefs, the Racine, Wis., native's foodservice career began in his teens, busing tables and washing dishes. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1976, Miller went on to open the kitchens at two esteemed resort hotels: the Opryland in Nashville, Tenn., and the Sandestin in Destin, Fla. In 1982, he landed at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., teaching culinary arts there for five years.

For the past 21 years, Miller, 54, has worked at Notre Dame, starting as executive chef of its hotel and conference center. Since then, he has earned numerous accolades, including the American Culinary Federation's 2003 Chef of the Year, Central Region. Now, as Notre Dame's executive chef, a position he's held since 2004, Miller is responsible for maintaining the university's culinary integrity. That includes ensuring more than 17,000 staff, faculty and students are aptly fed.

Miller's responsibilities include ensuring the food served at Notre Dame is produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Lately, seafood sustainability has been top of mind for Miller. In late November, Notre Dame received chain-of-custody certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, allowing it to serve seafood bearing the MSC eco-label. I talked to Miller in early December, right after he spoke at a "Food Fights" class.

HEDLUND: What's challenging about serving seafood at an academic institute?

MILLER: This is why a lot of university chefs have hotel backgrounds, because hotels do a lot of catering. Restaurants are à la carte; you react. At hotels and banquets, you have 500 people, so you have to pay attention to carryover cooking. And that's not unlike dining halls. You can't cook to order. So we do what you call batch cooking. That may sound hard, but it's not. We've got it zeroed in pretty tight. In fact, right now I'm revisiting 
our batch-cooking methodology, looking to increase it, especially in seafood. Seafood is all about moisture. So you really have to be on top of it.

 

What percentage of 
Notre Dame students eat seafood?

We do 10,000 meals per day. Of that 10,000, we do 2,000 at breakfast, 4,000 at lunch and 4,000 at dinner. We know that 8 to 10 percent of students are going to eat seafood [at lunch and dinner]. You're talking about 250 pounds of seafood in each dining hall per meal period, or roughly 1,000 pounds a day. Then there's Lent. Our fish counts go way up during Lent, since we're a Catholic university.

 

What are students' 
favorite seafood species?

No. 1 is tuna, primarily tuna salad. We go through a lot of albacore. No. 2 is salmon and No. 3 is tilapia.

 

What is the student 
body's perception of:

Nutrition? There's a lot more awareness of diet than when I was a student. They care more about what they're eating, to some degree. You know kids. They need their fuel; they're going to carb up. But more are looking at healthy food choices, understanding that that will lead to a more active lifestyle.

Sustainability? There are a lot of life science classes at the university. Every semester, I'm a guest speaker at a class called "Food Fights." It's about food and social issues. But they're not talking about seafood, so I always bring it up.

 

What are your 
responsibilities as executive chef?

My primary responsibility is maintaining the integrity of the foodservice operation. We have 500 to 600 employees, including 40 managers. So it's impossible for me to be everywhere. I spend about 35 percent of my time teaching and training. We have a test kitchen that I directly oversee, so I'm very involved in research and development. Just about everything that's served on campus originates from the test kitchen.

I have my administrative responsibilities as well. I'm very involved in [food's role in] environmental and social responsibility. I'm concerned that we're not thinking enough about seafood. I think it's because you can't see it. Out of sight, out of mind.

 

When did seafood sustainability 
pop up on your radar screen?

I put Chilean sea bass on the menu of a board of trustees banquet, and someone sent a letter directly to [former Notre Dame President Edward Malloy] just lambasting me. This is 10 or 15 years ago. Father Malloy forwarded it to me but never said a word to me about it. That's about when I met Bob Sullivan [president of The Plitt Co. in Chicago], and he turned me on to seafood sustainability. He's very knowledgeable.

 

Now that Notre Dame has MSC chain-of-custody certification, 
what's next?

The next step is to get it up and running. We just brought in our first two loads [of MSC-labeled seafood]: salmon and pollock from Alaska, 2,000 pounds each. I'm responsible for integrating it into our operations, making sure we track it through our system and maintain the MSC standards. I'm passionate about it. I'm fortunate that our foodservice director, Dave Prentkowski, is, too. Without his support, I don't think we'd be here right now.

 

SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

 

 

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