UDS chef goes local for sustainability

Executive chef Kirke Northcutt has been exploring locally grown and organic options.

by Liz Riggs

In the 22 years executive chef Kirke Northcutt has worked for University Dining Services, he’s seen a number of changes.

Take the atmosphere for example. The dining facility where Northcutt works, Bistro West, has experimented with everything from the volume of its background music to the amount of plush in its chairs, all in an effort to please customers.

(And in case you were wondering, they’ve decided on no music at the moment and against the cushy chairs altogether, because as Northcutt explained, “people would actually nod off” while in the restaurant.)

In addition to these rather minor changes, UDS has recently made a more significant attempt to cater to the University’s needs with something it’s calling a “commitment to sustainability.”

As part of that commitment, last year UDS joined the Heartland Food Network, an organization of local restaurants that supports locally grown food.

“It’s basically a network of restaurants and farmers that are coming together to encourage the purchasing of sustainable foods, local and organic,” said UDS assistant director, Karen DeVet.

“And through that networking and through the promotion of local dining, the intent is to broaden the understanding of what sustainability is and the benefits of buying local and eating local,” DeVet said.

One way UDS and other Heartland members have chosen to market these goals is through a monthly event called Third Thursdays, where participating area chefs prepare an entire meal using locally grown foods.

Upscale Minneapolis seafood restaurant Oceanaire and Muffuletta Café in St. Anthony Park are among the restaurants participating in Third Thursdays, along with the University’s own Bistro West.

But in addition to hosting its own Third Thursdays event, the bistro attempts to incorporate sustainable, local and organic foods into its menus on a daily basis, said Heather Mentgen, UDS marketing program manager.

Northcutt estimated approximately 10 percent to 12 percent of the products he uses is organic. About 65 percent to 70 percent of the products used at Bistro is locally grown or produced, he said.

Northcutt said the percentage fluctuates depending on the season and product availability.

While the initiative applies to other UDS locations as well, Bistro West is the premiere sustainability center – and the chef enjoys adding a dash of local flavor.

“It’s a good place to sponsor Minnesota,” Northcutt said.

Located in the basement of the Humphrey Center, Northcutt said the Bistro is frequently visited by everyone from students and faculty to international dignitaries, so the utilization of locality is important.

“There’s no reason the University of Minnesota shouldn’t be on the forefront of that,” Northcutt said.

University alumnus Richard Orr dined at Bistro during the Third Thursday promotion this week.

Although he’d never been to the bistro before, he said the food display looked appealing.

“It looked a little bit better than some of the stuff you see presented at some of the other UDS counters,” said Orr, who ordered the roast beef. “(It) was really good, actually.”

Orr wasn’t aware that the bistro had a sustainable focus, but said he was impressed.

He said he was happy UDS responded to student needs when he, a 2006 graduate, was a student, but said the price of food also matters.

“I think they should try to keep costs affordable for students,” he said.

DeVet said cost has been something UDS has had to weigh, especially when some students are encouraging expanded use of fair-trade products.

“What we hear from our customers is ‘we like the sustainability efforts’ but that’s not to suggest that everybody wants to pay more,” DeVet said.

Still, after experimenting with pricier dishes for awhile, Northcutt said he has found what appears to be a good balance between using sustainable ingredients and being cost efficient – something that could be evidenced most aptly by his ability to cook an orange pecan salmon dish for well under $10.