Bulletin September 2006
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 74 | Issue 5
September 2006

From the Executive Director: Cooking conundrum 

I work with an entire staff of “foodies.” According to The Official Foodie Handbook, “foodie” is defined as, “A person who is very, very, very interested in food … They don’t think they are being trivial and consider food to be an art on a level with a painting or drama. It is actually their favorite art form” (Irwin, 2004, ¶ 3). Foodie.com says, “The foodie lives to eat, and eating to live is definitive boredom. A true foodie clings to all things culinary” (Irwin, 2004, ¶ 5). Foodies do not think it shallow or a waste of time to endlessly search for the creamiest blue cheese, the crustiest French baguette, or the preeminent dark chocolate as their life’s work. They readily admit their gastronomic quests are not as noble as discovering a cure for cancer or finding an answer for world peace; yet the care they take in describing an aged balsamic vinegar they found online at Williams Sonoma, or the homemade pasta they made last night for dinner, is nothing short of remarkable.

There is even a quiz on the Internet my staff took one day at lunch to determine their true food acumen. You were an “Expert Foodie” if you knew that “foie gras” was goose liver, “sweetbreads” the Thymus gland, an “amuse bouche” a complimentary treat from the chef, or “free range” a type of meat or poultry as opposed to an oven that was being given away without charge (“Test your knowledge,” n.d.). It was not surprising to me that seven out of 12 staff members scored a whopping 100 percent on the 20-question quiz, with the remaining still scoring well above the bottom “Fair Weather-Feeder” distinction.

Employing a staff of foodies has played itself out in numerous ways including inventing the most mundane reasons to celebrate so we could go en masse to a local restaurant for lunch; beginning our weekly staff meeting with a quick synopsis of the Food Network’s latest episode of the Barefoot Contessa; or maintaining an unflinching devotion to organizing thematic potlucks several times a year. However, each of these typical expressions pale in comparison to our most recent endeavor: cooking for ACUI’s premier student leadership institute. The ACUI Central Office staff actually wanted to plan, order, prepare, and serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 70 college students and 10 facilitators for six days during the Institute for Leadership Education and Development (I-LEAD®).

Without squelching our enthusiasm, we began to formulate, categorize by importance, and pigeonhole the many questions now surfacing about this feat. What about liability? What if the food makes one of the participants sick? Are we exempt from being certified food-handlers according to the Indiana health codes? What is our familiarity with health ordinances beyond washing hands after bathroom use and wearing a baseball cap so hair doesn’t get in the food? Do we know enough about holding food at the right temperature or what is considered suitable cold storage or the proper internal temperature of a cooked chicken breast?

Business considerations were a close second after potential liability issues. Because the Association budget is cost-centered, how were we going to assign the staff salaries and overhead to the I-LEAD® program and still make the program viable? Given that the Central Office has a small staff, who was going to do the day-to-day work of the staff while they were at the sorority house cooking? If the Central Office staff were not cooking for six days, what new work could we be creating that would have a far greater return on investment and prove to be a better use of our time for a larger percentage of the ACUI population?

Finally, how could we possibly meet all of the particular food needs of such a diverse population? Eighty students and staff were sure to have their fair share of individuals with food allergies, illnesses with food restrictions, not to mention vegetarians, ova-lacto vegetarians and vegans, religious requirements, and just plain picky eaters. Were we skilled enough and prepared to meet each student’s unique needs and wants?

All of those concerns were in juxtaposition to the positive effect that our cooking would have on the I-LEAD® program. We knew the good will and support derived from the staff cooking would provide huge dividends in public relations. Additionally, the improved quality and presentation of the food would enhance the experience for the participants exponentially. Finally, the fun and camaraderie the staff would experience working together on this project would come back to the organization many times over.

This quandary was not unlike the dilemmas managers face daily in a college union. And like a college union, the discussion broke down into two familiar camps, the program versus the administrative or operation side. How many times do you have to decide between the exact same issues? How many times do you discuss the pros and cons of using revenue-generating space for programs? How many times must you justify the staff support needed to make a program successful? How many times do you respond to a request for something new with a myriad of reasons of why it cannot be done; only to change the “Absolutely not!” to “Okay, let’s try it, just this once?” It happens all the time.

One of my staff members shared a wonderful story about his experience at Indiana University’s union. Union Board had found a vendor that would bring in a vat of melted wax and allow students to dip their hands into the wax. Whatever sign they created with their hand—be it a peace symbol or fist—was memorialized in a wax cast that they could proudly display in their bedroom or on the fireplace mantle in their apartment. Of course, the operations folks could only think of the hours it would take to scrape colored wax off the terrazzo floor. But after much discussion, wax hands would go on as the students had planned. And as it turned out, you would have thought they were giving away $20 bills with how long the line was for students to dunk their hands into hot melted wax—it was that popular.

Just like with the wax hands, it’s always important to discuss the pros and cons of a decision before making it, which is exactly what we did with I-LEAD®. We needed to consider the financial position of the program and the Association at the time the decision was being made. Could we in fact take a bit more risk and partially subsidize the program for the potential good will it would bring?

You probably guessed the outcome. We decided to go ahead and cook, and six of us did an astonishing job planning, ordering, preparing, and serving six days of food to the I-LEAD® students and facilitators. The staff arranged themselves into teams of three and four so the office could at least be covered minimally. They worked hard, and the accolades from the participants were numerous and glowing. On the last morning of I-LEAD®, yards of butcher paper hung in the kitchen containing the most heartfelt thank you notes personally inscribed from each of the participants to the staff. And while the staff that participated could be described as dead tired, their feeling of accomplishment and the appreciation expressed to them was special indeed.

Yet the question still remains, “What about next year?” One of my favorite quotes of all time is by management guru Peter Drucker: “A decision is a judgment; it is a choice between alternatives. It is rarely a choice between right or wrong. It is at best a choice between ‘almost right’ and ‘probably wrong’.” While many of us would like to repeat the I-LEAD® cooking experience next year, we will have to discuss how successful the decision was for the organization. What else could we accomplish for the Association with the 170 combined hours of staff time that it took us to prepare food for I-LEAD®? I guess being a manager is being able to operate in the gray area of judgment constantly treading the delicate waters of balance hoping in the final analysis you are almost right far more than you are probably wrong.

References

Irwin, H. (2004, July/August). Fessin’ up to the ‘F’ word: Proud confessions of a foodie. North Bay Bohemian. Retrieved August 14, 2006, from http://www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/07.28.04/foodies-0431.html.
“Test your knowledge.” (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2006, from http://www.forfoodies.com/html/foodiequiz.html.