Valentine Dining Welcomes Critics With Open Arms at Town Hall
Issue   |   Wed, 02/15/2012 - 02:06

Last Monday, Feb. 6, students and senators gathered in the Red Room for a public forum discussion with Director of Dining Services Charles Thompson and Executive Chef Jeremy Roush to discuss the future of Valentine Hall. Association of Amherst Students (AAS) President Romen Borsellino ’12 organized the meeting to improve communication between the student body and the staff of Valentine Hall. The meeting came as part of a broader initiative by the AAS to increase dialogue between students and decision-makers on issues that are essential to life at the College.

“We are striving at senate meetings to find something students really care about … and we wanted to give students a chance to chat openly about something that affects them every day — the food they eat,” Borsellino said.

Thompson started by emphasizing the importance of student input in developing the food program at Val.He reminded students that although he could not meet every student request, he was eager to listen to student suggestions.

“We made a commitment to provide the best program we can for you folks, and we’ve grown the program over the past few years based largely on student input,” Thompson said. “Criticism helps us learn and grow in our job and get better at what we do.”

Roush, who started as Executive Chef last fall, said Val is in an “evolutionary state” and described his goal of instilling food at Val with a “chef-driven field-to-table concept.” He said that the Lighter Side was due for the biggest changes, announcing the introduction of char-broiled chicken in March, accompanied by other improvements to the variety of selections. Both Roush and Thompson were pleased with the new Val Twitter feed, describing it as a “positive exchange of ideas ... that helps strengthen the communication and trust between Dining Service and our students/customers.”

After their introduction, Thompson and Roush responded to questions from students who attended the event. Students brought up a variety of concerns and issues, from oversized onions at the salad bar and the large quantity of food thrown away each night, to the lack of cereal at dinner. In response, Roush promised that he would start to train staff to cut the onions into smaller pieces and explained that the open buffet format of Val meant that, under Massachusetts state law, they had to throw away any leftover food. Thompson addressed the cereal comment, saying that although Dining Services could not afford to offer cereal at dinner (it would cost an additional $25,000-$30,000) it “is still on our radar.”

Even a few AAS representatives joined in the discussion. Senator Noah Gordon ’14 complimented Val on the popular General Tso’s chicken entrée, while Borsellino suggested that Val should schedule more events like the late night study break offered during reading period. Thompson explained that the study break event is prohibitively expensive, but he suggested that a similar event could be held at Schwemm’s where they already have the staff to manage the event.

Thompson also announced the return this semester of the quadrennial Val Luau event. This event, which is extremely popular with both students and the Amherst community, will feature a traditional Hawaiian feast, fresh fruit arrangements, Polynesian dancers, flame twirlers and kiddie pools. It has historically drawn crowds of over 3,000 people.

Thompson and Roush concluded the discussion by thanking students and reminding them that change at Val will be a gradual process.

“We’re not in a holding pattern, but change has been hard on the staff — it requires lots of relearning skills — and we need to move forward with a strong foundation,” Roush said.

Thompson later said the event was very successful.

“Not only were there many valuable suggestions and comments made, but one very important message that I heard was the positive student acknowledgement of the changes and enhancements we have made to the program thus far,” Thompson said. “That is huge for me, knowing that the changes in the program have had a positive impact on our student customers’ dining experience and that we are moving in the right direction.”

And although he could not commit to any concrete changes in Val’s future yet, Thompson added, “We will review all suggestions made and go from there. Though much has been done to improve our dining program, and we know there is still much work to be done, the chapter is never finished. It just keeps evolving and growing.”