Higher food 'profile' in a high quality kitchen staff

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If a student orders a cheeseburger — something as simple as that — why shouldn't it be the highest quality cheeseburger available?

That's the food philosophy behind the new campus executive chef Fred Mildner and his staff of cooks this year. As Mildner enters his first full year of working in the Hub, he is not only trying to improve the overall taste of the food, but also to improve the culinary skills of his cooks.

As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Mildner has worked in kitchens his entire life. In his previous occupation, he served as the campus executive chef at Southern Polytechnic State University in Atlanta, Georgia.

"What drove me here was the food philosophy: we want fresh food," Mildner said. "We want to eat local, we want to do sustainability, we want to get as much organic as we can. That's what I want to do."

Mildner is a self-described "old-fashioned" chef, using as many all-natural ingredients and local foods that he can get his hands on.

"I'm an old dinosaur, and I still appreciate doing it the old classic way," he said. "I was brought up that way. I can appreciate the way that fresh zucchini comes out. A lot of people don't look at it that way. Someone asked me the other day, ‘we need lemon juice.' I told them to go squeeze it." 

Mildner's insistence on fresh foods comes from his goal of providing a "high food profile" to all those who come through the Hub. Mildner spoke of an instance weeks earlier when a local farmer came into the kitchen claiming to have the best corn. Mildner took the corn, pulled the husk back and took a bite out of the cob.

"It was gorgeous," Mildner said. "You can taste the sugars. Those are the taste profiles I want to come out to the guests, students, faculty and staff, a very simple philosophy — good, fresh food."

Mildner's excitement about food was a quality that general manager of DePauw Dinning Services Steve Santo wanted in a new executive chef.

"We were looking for somebody to work with local food," Santo said. "Also looking for an old school chef and to do things differently to train our current staff how to do old things like cut and garnish."

While Mildner is the force behind the new flavors and foods in the Hub, it is his staff of cooks who are making his philosophy a reality.

The recipes for all the foods are from Sodexo and ingredients are ordered from a food management system. Mildner follows those recipes, but he likes to tweak the menu. 

"I try to tell the cooks, ‘It's a guideline,'" Mildner said of the recipes. "That's how you become a cook. We go to these recipes and figure out what we have. I ask, ‘How can we modify it?' Let's get that real lemon. Some say instant mashed potatoes, but we don't do instant mashed potatoes. We are either going to peel potatoes or get skin-on potatoes."

For the cooks, the experience and techniques learned from Mildner are already helping them become better culinary artists. Chef Tim Martin has been working in different kitchens for the past 14 years. The opportunity to work with Mildner has allowed him to grow in his passion for food.

"Chef Fred is the most patient, down-to-earth, relaxed chef I've ever worked for," Martin said. "I've been looking for a few years for a chef like that to take me under his wing to teach me what he knows to expand my culinary career."

Mildner hopes his passion for food and helping others to get better with preparing food will help his cooks have careers like he has had. All the kitchens and services where he has worked thus far have brought a wealth of experience that he hopes to share with his colleagues.

"I want the students treated the way I would want my kids treated in college," said assistant baker Trish Jeske. "I love the students, they are my favorite part of the job. I want everything to be good for them."

The cafe, formerly known as the variety bar, will experience one of the most significant changes in menu. The cafe now features more fresh meats and vegetables, made more dynamic with the addition of a high-flavor profile.

"I think the cafe has everything I want," said freshman Long Cao. "I can get a large amount, and it has a wide range of taste with the many types of food."

Mildner wants every student to expand his or her culinary horizons a bit by trying things he or she may not have tried before. He welcomes feedback and admits that not everything he puts out to the community will be perfect. But imperfection is a part of improving the food quality at DePauw.

"We're trying to get better every day," Mildner said. "We are trying to change our flavor profiles. Patience is the biggest thing, we're going to make mistakes. And talk to us, and chances are we'll take care of it. I've been through this my whole career, 40 years in the kitchen. We're trying to do some cooler food for you."