Q&A: Martin Breslin & Christa Martin

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
 

With 25,000 meals each day, over a hundred items on the menu per meal, 650 staff members  
and thousands of students on a mandatory meal plan, the job as director of culinary operations for Harvard University Dining Services is inherently complicated—and it’s not getting any simpler in the golden age of foodie-ism.

But Martin Breslin loves it, cheerfully greeting staff and students by name as he visits Harvard’s  
13 dining halls and 15 retail cafés. The Ireland native worked at hotels and restaurants in London
and New York before landing at HUDS in 2002.

We spoke with Breslin and Crista Martin, director for strategic initiatives and communications for HUDS. Topics ranged from food literacy and locally sourcing ingredients at scale, to the spike in food allergies and that time they reengineered the chili and lasagna filling with 30% mushrooms.

 

EDIBLE BOSTON: After attending culinary school in Dublin and working in hotels and restaurants, why transition to university dining?

MARTIN BRESLIN: A lot of restaurant chefs are finding their way into this segment of the industry. You actually have a better work-life balance. You’re not working every holiday, whereas in a restaurant or hotel, you would be. It’s a very different environment but you’re trying to achieve the same goal, which is great food and service.

Planning a menu for thousands of students must be a change of pace.

MB: We look at food trends. We survey the students to see what they’re looking for. We balance that on the menu that feeds students from over 105 countries on a mandatory meal plan. Our menu spans great American food to Korean barbecue beef to pad Thai to Indian vindaloo dishes, so we have quite an array of tastes.

And I understand that the food includes a lot of locally sourced ingredients.

MB: We want to support the local community [and] local vendors. We purchase fish from Red’s Best, down at the Seaport. That provides them with a guaranteed sale and a guaranteed price for the fish we purchase. A lot of our produce comes from—when in season—local farms in the area. And with regard to food waste, we have a program in place with Food For Free: Any food left over at the end of a meal is picked up by Food For Free and sent to local charities.

CRISTA MARTIN: Anytime we buy a vegetable for dinner, we need 700 pounds of that vegetable. So when we’re buying it locally, it takes several farms to support that. It requires some creative relationships, but it also means extensive support for those local food networks.

We’re using underutilized species with [the Red’s Best] program. When [a fisherman] goes out fishing for cod, he’s invariably going to catch these other species. That’s where his success and profitability lies—in being able to sell that other stuff that he maybe didn’t have a market for.

MB: Some of those underutilized species are the tastiest that the ocean has to offer, like skate and monkfish.

How does the price structure work?

CM: We said to [Red’s Best founder Jared Auerbach], “OK, do you have Maine shrimp?” He’d say, “OK, yes, here is the price.” And we’d say, “We need 900 pounds of it,” and he’d [balk]. But in our dynamic, students don’t pay by the meal. We have specific budgetary numbers. Finally, we said, “Listen. [If the fish is] tasty and fresh, we’re willing to take any fish you’ve got, [if you can get] this volume for this price.” We helped them flip the model. They hadn’t ever done that before. And now they’re doing it at schools all over the place.

The same happens with vegetables. We went to Wards Berry Farm [in Sharon]. Our students are here from September to May. The prime growing season is June, July, August. Wards finally said, “We’re going to grow hard squash for you because it’s coming up in the fall. We don’t know how much we’re going to be able to grow.” We said, “OK, we’ll take everything. If it’s 20,000 pounds or if it’s 40,000 pounds, we’ll take it.” Again, it was a flip of the dynamic— not ingredient-specific.

Do you act in loco parentis, where you’re trying to influence the students towards healthier choices?

MB: We work closely with the Harvard School of Public Health and [its] nutrition department. We’ve added aqua stations—water stations—and lower-calorie [beverage] offerings, so the default is not sugar-rich. We’ve seen over time that completely switch upside down. [Students] can make the choice. We do that with carbohydrates as well. We offer lots of whole grains on the menus, but you can go to the grill and have French fries. I think it’s the smart way: Offer healthy choices but don’t be punitive and take away the comfort foods.

Do you think that students’ tastes have changed over the years?

MB: Yes, probably because of the Food Network and focus around food and increase of ethnic restaurants. They’re willing to try a lot of things. Like, we just put a poke bar at one of our graduate schools yesterday and it was a huge hit.

And that’s not something you would have done 20 years ago?

MB: Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have done it.

Why a poke bar?

MB: It’s an emerging trend right now—more so on the West Coast, but it’s emerging here on the East Coast.

It’s neat that university dining pays attention to trends like that. Do you view yourselves as in competition with restaurants in the area?

MB: Of course. It’s good-food competition—serving good food that students want to eat, and covering that broad variety of students from the hundred-plus countries. 
We partnered with Monsoon Kitchens and [co-founder] Swati Elavia. They produce authentic, freshly made Indian sauces. We have a pop-up guacamole bar this week in our dining halls, which has been hugely popular. We do two freshly made guacamoles: one classic, and one Buffalo with blue cheese. How do you approach nutrition with regards to recipes? MB: I’m part of a group called the Healthy Menus Collaborative for the Culinary Institute of America. 
We started to introduce blending recipes. We have a commissary where we produce large quantities of soups and sauces but we also do chili, taco fillings, lasagna fillings. We re-engineered those recipes, [replacing] 30% of the beef with diced, roasted mushrooms. It tastes really good, and the students don’t miss it. And it’s better nutritionally—less saturated fat.

The students didn’t ask, “Where’s the beef?”

MB: [Mushrooms were added to the list of ingredients on the menu identifier, but] they really didn’t notice it… it’s delicious.

CM: In one meal, because of the number of people we serve, that reduction of beef equals taking a car off the road for half a year.

MB: We reduced our overall sodium levels by 30%… 
[partially with] cooking techniques, but primarily using Diamond Crystal kosher salt rather than regular kosher salt. It’s still sodium chloride, but it just has a hollow crystal.

Tell me about the Food Literacy Project.

CM: We established the Food Literacy Project in 2005 because students were coming to us with very unusual ideas about food. The further we get from food, the more processed our food becomes when we purchase it, and the more of a restaurant culture we become, the less they understand about how it gets to our plates.

How does the Food Literacy Project reach students?

CM:  [Harvard has the 13 houses, each with its own dining hall.] Every dining hall has [an undergraduate] fellow who works for his or her house to deliver programming, as well as [campus-wide] programming. Today, they’re having a Thai cooking class. Next week, there’s a “Careers in Food” panel. We have film screenings. We have tastings. You name it.

Were you always this committed to sustainability and locally sourcing ingredients?

MB:  Most chefs I’ve worked with are. Especially growing up in Ireland, everything is local. We cook with what’s available in season.

So how did you decide on food as a career?

MB: We used to vacation at a hotel in County Wexford as a kid with my parents. I was fascinated by the kitchen, and ended up helping out—working. I was deboning and stuffing turkeys. I was 12.

As a typical Irish Catholic family, the only meat we’d eat on Friday was fish. Six kids, plus mom and dad. [At the harbor, my mother] wouldn’t buy eight of the same fish. She’d buy eight different types of fish, no matter what it was, because she was so interested in tasting them. She’d cook them all the same way—dredged in flour in a cast-iron skillet with butter—and Friday dinner was such an educational piece because my siblings and I were always tasting different fish.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

MB: We’ve seen quite an increase in [allergies in my almost 15 years on campus, including] very severe anaphylactic reactions. We ask, obviously, that students identify any allergy, and we put processes in place. In some circumstances, their food is cooked completely separately using separate utensils and equipment to make sure that they receive a good, safe meal.

What’s on the horizon for Harvard University Dining Services?

MB: Menus Of Change—[a partnership between] the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health—talks about incrementally shifting how people eat because of the obesity epidemic and various other food-related illnesses and environmental issues.

CM: Another key theme is to continue to expand how we can buy locally. Once you’ve—no pun intended—tackled the low-hanging fruit, you want to keep it going. We are hosting a Commonwealth Kitchens partner, Buenas [at a café in our Graduate School of Design building]. Today, they’re doing 300 empanadas. If we were to do that in residential dining, we’d need 12,000. They’re a two-person operation. So exploring how we can help these entrepreneurs build their business in a way that is scalable is another part of what Martin is doing.

MB: [The New England Center for Arts and Technology is a nonprofit] culinary school, helping people [of a wide age range] get into the food industry. Their students do stages in our kitchens, particularly at the School of Public Health. Every week we’re taking in two new students from NE-CAT and having them work with our team so they get a clearer understanding of the industry they’re entering. And that’s built great relationships.

Symbiotic relationships, I would imagine, especially considering the shortage of chefs in the Boston area. When you’re hiring someone to work at Harvard University Dining Services, what do you look for?

MB: Somebody who is passionate about food, and a team player.

CM: Because every dining hall is someone’s home away from home. You have to want to make it that kind of warm and welcoming place. This interview has been condensed for length.  

NICOLE FLEMING is a metro correspondent for the Boston Globe and a columnist for WGBH's Craving Boston.  She is also the author of The Girl Who Ate Boston food blog at TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com. Follow her on Twitter @ GirlEatsBoston.