This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Close Up

Kent oversees UB’s residence dining

The opportunity for a new challenge brought Delanda Kent to UB´┐Żand keeps her here.

The opportunity for a new challenge brought Delanda Kent to UB—and keeps her here. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

  • “From a culinary level, it’s really about those challenges; those new situations that you walk into are the only way to grow.”

    Delanda Kent
    Corporate Chef, Campus Dining and Shops
Published: November 11, 2009

For Delanda Kent, food has been the medium, her passion and profession for nearly 20 years.

“For me, it’s about being challenged,” she says. “Food is an enigma. There are chemical things that are happening, physical components—cooking is very much a process and a practice. There are so many things you’re trying to control, manipulate or enhance. Those challenges for me never stop.”

The corporate chef of Campus Dining and Shops (CDS) thrives on the non-stop challenge of overseeing a staff of 16 cooks responsible for more than 15,000 meals a week for students with meal plans in the four contract dining residence halls. She is involved in creating the menus that run in four-week cycles, along with special events, like the Harvest Festival that will be celebrated in the residence halls next Thursday, and catering parties both on and off campus for a variety of clients from the President’s Office to wedding receptions.

Kent even found time recently to enter her first food competition since college, winning in the best signature seafood appetizer category for her Shrimp Remoulade: East meets West, a whimsical blend, as she characterizes it, of French and Japanese cuisine. It is a dish she might prepare for one of those catered affairs.

The annual U.S. Foods competition was held last month at Adam’s Mark Hotel in Buffalo, one of the restaurant stops she made after arriving in Buffalo 15 years ago on a whim. No family members here, no job to come to, just one of four destinations Kent arbitrarily chose shortly after graduating with a degree in culinary arts from Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Brooklyn, Kent scuttled through jobs in New Jersey for more than a year before deciding she needed to find some stability for her future.

“I got seduced by the Buffalo weather actually. I like the cold. It worked for me,” she recalls. “Like any young cook, it takes a while to find your footing about what you like and what you want your food to say. I came to Buffalo and decided to throw my hat into the arena and see how things would work out for me. I thought I would try it for a year. The year has turned into 15. I think, at this point, I’m probably here to stay.”

Her first job here was at Old Country Buffet before she went on to Brennan’s, Cole’s, Adam’s Mark and a four-year stay at Oliver’s, which she describes as “a fabulous experience, an acute learning curve that was very challenging. It was a team of pretty talented young chefs and we interplayed with each other and the recipes.”

Kent was intrigued by a newspaper ad for a CDS position and responded. “I didn’t really know what I was walking into,” she says. “I didn’t have a reality for collegiate dining, which is really cloaked in this kind of mystery. When people think about it, to them it’s sort of like a glorified lunch lady that we remember from school. I didn’t know how advanced it was or how difficult it would be, but I’ve always had a real strong faith in my ability to learn. So I came here and it was definitely somewhat of a culture shock. It was a very different culinary environment here than what I was used to.”

She was hired as a cook I floater, helping out where necessary among the four contract dining residence halls—Goodyear, Red Jacket, Richmond and Governors—and catering. Seven months later, she was encouraged to apply for a production manager position that opened at Goodyear.

“I spent the next three years learning what I really think of as the art of production managing—basically responsible for everything in the unit that deals with requisition or acquisition of product, whether chemical, poultry, bread or milk,” she relates. “Goodyear is a really high-profile operation, a cash unit as well as a contract unit, with very long operational hours. It’s kind of like CDS all rolled up into one operation.”

Then last March, there was transition on the upper level of the CDS culinary team and another position opened for which she was encouraged to reply. “At that point, I was looking for my next challenge,” says Kent. “Once I’ve mastered something, my brain immediately starts to look for the next thing that will intrigue me. From a culinary level, it’s really about those challenges; those new situations that you walk into are the only way to grow.”

The position was to oversee contract dining. Her job title was changed a few times before settling on corporate chef. “There was a lot about this new position that was unexpected for me, so there was a lot of on-my-feet learning and thinking on the go.”

Her duties include menu writing, training production managers, overseeing the staff, going over recipes and procedures, and setting an overall level of expectations. “We approach it from an area of customer service. The students really are our customers and our jobs are truly to please them,” she states.

This customer service includes holding focus groups with students to hear their feedback and then addressing those demands. One example is the Mongolian grill that recently opened in Goodyear. “CDS sent me and a team to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) because they had one. I came back and spent the whole summer on recipes, how the kitchen would run and what would we offer as a menu selection. It really turned out to be very successful—the feedback from students was tremendous. They loved this element of show cooking that they could come in, literally pick what they want, watch it being prepared in front of them, and do so in a timely manner,” she says.

Her experience at UB now is a far cry from when she initially felt like a fish out of water. “Now when I look back, I feel it’s one of the best decisions I ever made from a career standpoint. It’s been exciting and challenging. I’m a better chef and manager now than I was four years ago. My level of organization and my interaction with people is better.

“At CDS, it’s been my experience that they will move you into areas of growth,” Kent says. “Because what we do is so specific, they like to tap what internal resources we have and our understanding of our facilities and the campus. We know the culture and so they are looking for the bright, inquisitive seeds in the bunch to grow and they’ve been supportive of me. I had spent the years prior at the back of the house cooking. That was my strength. It wasn’t math, procedures, requisitioning product, talking to vendors. That’s a pretty big operation and they gave me that opportunity to try. They had faith in me that it would work out.”

That institutional image is also a far cry. “There’s a standardization to the process, but it is very much not what I thought it would be. It definitely is high-volume cooking. The thing that surprised me was that it was based on the core culinary fundamentals,” Kent explains. “We are actually cooking in our contract units. The trend these days is really so much of a purchase-and-thaw type of environment. Our cooks are well versed in culinary fundamentals.”

The menus in the residence halls run from Monday through Sunday in four cycles. Five days of a week there is a carved-to-order item—the “show cooking” trend—along with a variety of protein and starch options, seafood, vegetarian and vegan items, salad bar, frozen yogurt, and pasta and sauce.

Then, there are the special dinners and pacesetter events: tasty menu-breakers like September’s “Welcome to Buffalo” showcasing Buffalo products to give out-of-town students an opportunity to sample the local fare, Harvest Feast—CDS’s version of Thanksgiving with all the traditional fixings—and the end-of-semester Winter Wonderland celebration on Dec. 9.

“We try to make it so you can make a meal on your plate that you’re happy with,” says Kent.

The catering side involves events and parties thrown by departments and offices across the campuses, and even off-campus events such as wedding receptions.

Kent feels “tremendously blessed to be doing something at my age that I picked at 17 that still is exciting and as much fun.” Fifteen years into it, she says she is now more Buffalo than Brooklyn. “This is a place that speaks to my soul. It’s very peaceful for me.” She lives near the South Campus, a city girl at heart.

A self-described workaholic, Kent admits that her personal life is rather low-key. She spends a lot of time at work—not because she has to, but because she wants to. “I do it because literally every day is a challenge and there is something that I find terribly seductive.”

If it weren’t food, says Kent, she would probably be focused on religious study “because, again, that’s an area with challenges and mysteries—an enigma. Food has done good by me,” she says. “It’s all those processes around food that I find exciting.”