As a relatively recent college grad, I remember all too well the struggle that is feeding yourself in your first four years of independence. Whether you’re trying to avoid the freshman fifteen, needing a late-night snack to power through finals week, or craving some biscuits and gravy on Saturday morning after a long Friday night, the wants, needs, and desires of college students are always evolving.
If you’re lucky, you have a chef like Christopher Smith on your campus. Chef Chris has been the Campus Executive Chef with Bon Appétit Management Company at the University of Pennsylvania for six years and thrives in the world of campus dining, where he serves a wide range of people and creates all types of cuisines.
I chatted with Chef Chris to learn more about what led to his career as a chef, how it is to serve and meet the needs of very diverse diners, and life in Philadelphia.
Jonathan Squibb: What caused you to want to become a chef?
Chef Chris: It was while I was traveling internationally with my dance group. While in Central America, I had the opportunity to try a wide variety of cuisines. It was during this time that a curiosity in food grew into a true passion for the culinary arts.
JS: Mind sharing more about your dancing career?
Chef Chris: So, at the age of ten I had the opportunity to perform in my first school talent show. The dance craze was called Poppin, or The Electric Boogaloo. Talk about nervous! But everyone enjoyed it and I received a standing ovation. About three years later I joined a group called the Force Four, and we were a force to be reckoned with! Long story short, we performed at a lot different venues and did a lot of traveling. My most memorable performance was at the Academy of Music before a 75-piece Orchestra with Peter Nero & The Philly Pops! That was breath-taking for me.
JS: How did you make your transition from international dance group to executive chef?
Chef Chris: After wrapping up my dance career, I received some formal training through the ACF (American Culinary Federation) and at the Culinary Institute of America, but I consider my hands-on restaurant experience priceless.
JS: What’s it like working with college students?
Chef Chris: It’s great! Having a strong restaurant background, I like to look at each student as my “guest” here on campus, and I enjoy catering to their needs. I feel that understanding what students want is the first step to a successful foodservice program. The students here at U-Penn have strong opinions when it comes to their dining options, and I (we) here at Bon Appétit do everything we can to satisfy them.
JS: One of those strong opinions focuses on sustainability and eating local. Do you have hands-on experience with local farmers?
Chef Chris: Yes! I try to visit local farms as much as possible. I’m particularly very happy and excited about how we’re participating in Bon Appétit/Compass’s Imperfectly Delicious Produce program here on campus, working with farmers to identify cosmetically challenged produce that can be rescued. It has been very successful. My chefs love finding creative ways to incorporate the produce in their menus across campus.
JS: How is it living and working in Philadelphia, having grown up there?
Chef Chris: Growing up as well as working here in Philadelphia is great, the restaurant scene is amazing! I remember growing up here, everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. Every parent felt a sense of responsibility for each kid. I loved it. Though my family and I have now lived in Delaware for the last 14 years, I’m still a Philadelphian at heart!
JS: What’s one food you can’t live without?
Chef Chris: Salmon! Very healthy for you and I really enjoy preparing it. Grilling and pan-searing are my favorites.
JS: What makes being a chef more than just a 9 to 5 job?
Chef Chris: I have the opportunity every day to infuse good food with good flavor. Working with my staff to create delicious, from-scratch menu items allows me to explore new and exciting ways to share my passion for food.
– By Jonathan Squibb, Communications & Engagement Specialist, Compass Group USA