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Dining at work or school doesn’t have to be a drag. While many lunchrooms and cafeterias might offer nothing more than a vending machine or a greasy cheeseburger, a few institutions take pride in their culinary offerings by hiring chefs to bring delectable delights to the workplace.
While working in the corporate or academic world gives them little outside exposure, the chefs at three local organizations say they have no regrets.
Vince Howard, chef at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s The Research Cafe, worked more than a decade in some of the metro’s top restaurants before joining OMRF in December 2010. His hours span from about 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“This was me getting out of 10 years of 80-hour weeks,” he says. “I liked it, but it got old.”
Destiny Hand, chef at Oklahoma City University, has found that while her days are busy, she has time to plan her raw, vegan menu in a relaxed environment where she meets customers face-to-face and can explain menu items and their related health benefits.
right Vince Howard
“I’m so glad that it’s not hectic here,” she says.
Chesapeake’s executive chef, Mark Vannasdall, says he wouldn’t trade his position for anything.
“This is the ultimate job for a chef,” he says. “I have a lot of room to create, a great staff, and then I generally work Monday through Friday.”
CHESAPEAKE ENERGY CORP.
Don’t try to make a reservation at one of Chesapeake Energy Corp.’s four distinctive restaurants on its Oklahoma City campus, each overseen by Vannasdall. They are for employees and their guests only, featuring a variety of gourmet fare and a lively, ever-changing range of specials for the more brave at heart (think rattlesnake soup).
For those seeking something more traditional, other options include barbecue, sandwiches, salads, fresh seafood and a variety of healthy fare in its Fuel Cafe.
Vannasdall provides nutritional information so employees know exactly what they are putting in their bodies. While his favorite cooking style is Southern and New Orleans-esque, which one might consider heartier fare, he likes to give his customers the option to eat healthy one day, and splurge a bit the next.
“They give me quite a bit of leeway,” he says. “Chesapeake is all about taking care of the employees.”
In taking care of employees, Fuel recently changed its concept to include a smoothie bar, flatbread pizzas, assorted healthy grains and other offerings at fewer than 550 calories.
An average meal runs between $5 and $6, and Vannasdall says that same food at a comparable restaurant off-campus likely would cost twice as much.
To keep things fresh and new, the menus change about every eight weeks.
“If someone looks at the same food every day, it gets monotonous,” Vannasdall says, adding that the restaurants, too, will experience changes this year. “For 2012, we decided each restaurant would be its own destination.”
right Chesapeake's flatbread pizza
Changes will include the aforementioned healthy options at Fuel, which also features touch-screen ordering; Wildcat, the oldest restaurant on campus, will have a heavy barbecue influence along with a New York-style deli; and Elements will boast a seafood theme with six different fish options in addition to shrimp and scallops, but also will include an Italian bar and street tacos.
OKLAHOMA CITY UNIVERSITY
At OCU’s The Caf, students, staff and the public can dine on everything from pizza to raw vegan selections for about $6.25 a plate. Hand prepares entrees, squeezes fruits and veggies and creates desserts that are made from fruits, vegetables and nuts. Nothing is cooked. OCU officials say this is the only raw, vegan food bar at a university in the United States.
“It gives people more energy, makes them feel better and reduces stress,” she says.
The Caf has been feeding students for years, but in October 2010, General Manager Kelli Keegan added the raw, vegan bar, and in August 2011, Hand came onboard.
“I’m not vegan, but I love learning how to make it,” she says.
Where a burger or tacos might be advertised, vegan diners will find their food wrapped in lettuce with a meat substitute made from nuts and spices.
Hand estimates she prepares about 100 raw, vegan meals per day. When she started the job, she was making about 40 to 50 per day.
“A lot of athletes didn’t want it at first,” she says. “Since I started making deserts, they started to grab them and then said, ‘OK, let me try the entrée.’” For others, Hand simply coaxed them over for a sample. After one bite, many wanted more.
“I like to change their minds,” she says. She also has a steady stream of those with dietary restrictions, and dancers looking to keep their form while staying nourished.
When it comes to planning the menu, the university allows her the freedom to plan her own offerings.
“It’s nice because I get to decide what I want to make,” she says. “They have let me have full control.”
OKLAHOMA MEDICAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION
At OMRF, employees and the public enjoy daily specials and favorites from the grill, which average $5 to $6. And Howard is looking out for their health, whether they know it or not.
“I don’t use cream or salt in any of the food,” he says. “Cooking without salt has been a challenge, but it’s really changed the way I cook.”
Howard says with researchers in the building working on cures for diseases and cancer, he doesn’t want to feed them items that can contribute to poor health. He offers a variety of favorites, such as burgers and chicken sandwiches, vegetarian options and offerings for those with food allergies. And when his patrons tell him their restrictions, he makes every effort to accommodate them.
“I know them by name, and I’m very familiar with their dietary needs,” he says.
With a background in everything from sushi to fine dining, Howard takes old favorites, gives them a little love and makes everything from scratch. The cafe does offer a few items from local businesses, such as buns from Prairie Thunder Bakery.
Like meatloaf or fajitas?
Howard has his own take on standard dishes. His nachos, for example, are made with seared ahi tuna, pasta chips, mozzarella, roasted red bell peppers and a shallot vinaigrette.
“The allure is that it’s something you’re familiar with,” he says.
Other specialties include curry squash soup, sweet and sour pork, and rosemary polenta.
A love of food, and the freedom to create and explore, allows Howard to introduce diners to new dishes. Some days they’re willing to be brave, other days, they stick with what they know.
“Sometimes they just want barbecue,” he says.