While typical dorm meals bring to mind a bland culinary experience, Beverly Collet, the manager of the new Ashdown Dining Hall and Thirsty Ear Pub, describes her food philosophy as “white cloth service for brown bag clients,” distinguishing her operations from the typical college fare. Through inventive menus, theme nights, and attention to quality, Collet aims to become one of the best dining models on MIT’s campus.
Collet came to the Institute as an overqualified candidate to serve as a chef for fraternity brothers. After a three-year stint traveling and cooking all over Ireland, Collet was motivated to return to the United States in July 2004 in order to vote in the presidential election. Jobless, she responded to a Craiglist ad for a fraternity chef position, noting that having the summer off was a major highlight.
While fraternity chefs might typically be associated with feeding high volumes of food to ravenous teenage boys, Collet had higher aspirations. Influenced by her time traveling, Collet said she became inspired by seasonal, colorful dishes, and hoped to serve “upscale” food to college students. “I think that’s how a plate should read – colorful!” Collet said.
As a fraternity chef, Collet met Richard D. Berlin III, Director of Campus Dining. While she initially proposed serving lunch in the student center, Berlin had another idea. “[Berlin] offered me the chance to operate Ashdown dining. He was giving me the key to my dream of having my own restaurant,” Collet said.
“Feedback from [Collet]’s fraternity customers was very positive,” said Berlin. After taste tests with stakeholders ranging from students to staff, MIT Dining selected Collet for the Ashdown service.
“I guess you could say that the stars aligned nicely,” said Berlin. “We found an experienced operator already familiar with serving MIT students in the style we were looking for at Ashdown, and someone interested in a retail food service opportunity like the Thirsty Ear Pub.”
“The first several weeks have been a whirlwind effort to get it up and running – and running well,” Collet said. She had only a few months to hire and train staff, plan menus, move into a new building, and prepare for students.
While Collet has taken on significant new managerial challenges, her focus remains on the food, she said. “I went on nightly pub crawls in Europe, but there was a certain ersatz missing from the food,” Collet said. “Wherever I work, the food will be of a higher quality.” Under that aim, Collet’s pub menu, a new addition to the Thirsty Ear, includes mahogany chicken wings, Baba ghanoush, falafel, and a chicken burger with beet greens.
“[Collet]’s passion for food is engaging and it shows in her menus, service and interaction with students,” said Berlin.
Collet said she’s keeping her focus on food quality because quality is integral to success. “The numbers go down if food is bad, and they go up if it’s good,” she said, referring to numbers of student diners. “I want to increase my numbers by 150 percent by the year’s end,” Collet said.
For Collet, food quality is inextricably linked to healthy, seasonal, and organic food. “I know when every vegetable come[s] to age,” Collet said. “Winter vegetables are the color of fall leaves and summer vegetables are the color of summer foliage.” She said she believes that serving vegetables in season offers a variety and taste that cannot be replicated through using produce shipped across the globe. Her working relationships with New England Organics and Boston Organics ensure that Ashdown Dining has a ready supply of organic foods to incorporate into every meal.
“My personal challenge is to never repeat a menu,” Collet said. “I’m eating, reading [cookbooks], and deconstructing recipes all the time.” For example, a recent menu featured deconstructed gumbo, with shrimp, rice, and vegetables complemented with Cajun spices. “Each day you find new sources,” she said.
Ashdown Dining has been serving an average of 120 people per night, with customers including graduates, undergraduates, housemasters, and staff. While the numbers exceed Collet’s initial expectations, she still hopes to reach more students. “Everybody should try out [Ashdown Dining],” Collet said. “They’re missing something very special.” Collet credits word-of-mouth and student recommendations as her largest marketing tool.
Student response seems positive, according to diners at Ashdown Dining. Many students were repeat visitors and brought along friends. “It’s better than anywhere else on campus,” said Charles D. DeRobertis ‘10. “It’s really good food.” Other students commented that the food was less cafeteria quality.
Collet said she plans to host “event evenings,” including Brazilian food night and salsa night. She would also like to expand into breakfast service, where she sees a strong potential market. She also believes MIT students would support “grab and go” food choices. Yet as more students discover Ashdown Dining, Collet recognizes that she needs to grow at a responsible pace to maintain the food quality.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Collet said, as she bustled around the sleek kitchen and bright dining hall filled with students. “We are doing something wonderful here.”