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University Food Services prepares for Commencement

CHRISTIAN MYERS | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Commencement weekend is a time of celebration for graduating students and their families, and good food is a must for any gathering of family and friends.

Executive Chef Donald Miller said Food Services personnel recognize the important role their work serves in the overall celebration of commencement weekend.

“We understand this is very important to the parents and students,” Miller said. “It’s not just about cooking good food. We do everything we can to make the weekend successful and memorable.”

Commencement weekend is busier than a typical weekend or even a football weekend, Lisa Wenzel, assistant director for catering and special events, said.

Wenzel said commencement weekend requires the most meals of any weekend, though Junior Parents Weekend and the Alumni Reunion Weekend are comparable.

Freshman Orientation also requires a significant contribution from Food Services, Miller said.

“It’s our biggest challenge of the year … We get to be a big part of the first impression and the last impression for the University,” Miller said.

Wenzel said Food Services will serve approximately 30,000 meals at roughly 125 to 150 total commencement events from Friday through Sunday.

Campus retail locations, including Legends, Reckers and the Huddle Mart, will be open, and if sales from these locations are included, the total number of meals is expected to reach 40,000, Wenzel said.

Miller said preparation for commencement is very similar each year, and changes are primarily based on lessons learned in previous years.

“We learn over the years to refine it and work out the bumps in the road,” Miller said.

Nevertheless, Miller said the weekend’s success requires long hours and a great deal of coordination.

“The weekend has to be well-choreographed, because a lot of work from a lot of people comes together in an organized fashion,” he said. “We try to distribute the workload because it is one of the busiest times of the year, and it takes everything we’ve got to execute this gracefully.”

Miller said the menus are prepared and food taste-tested months in advance. Food Services personnel meet a few weeks prior to commencement to review the plans and create cooking schedules and flow charts.

Preparation for the large meals occurs over the course of the entire week, Miller said. Beginning Monday, the kitchens prepare different elements of each menu throughout the week.

Wenzel said the food is prepared in the kitchens of the Food Services Support Facility, North Dining Hall and South Dining Hall. Miller said this requires coordination between kitchens, but spreads out the work and reduces the amount of food each kitchen has to prepare.

Miller said his individual role has changed this year because his daughter is a graduating senior.

“I’m more of a guest this year than a chef, though I’ll be back and forth,” Miller said.

Wenzel said her role for the weekend is mainly troubleshooting, but she expects to enjoy the weekend due to positive reactions from parents and family members of the graduates.

“It’s great because the parents and family are always so happy,” Wenzel said.

Approximately 200 students will work with Food Services as catering staff during commencement events, Wenzel said. They are paid for their work hours and receive room and board for the week prior to commencement.

Wenzel said Food Services is partnering with the Notre Dame Conference Center to sell tickets for five meals: lunch on Friday, lunch and dinner on Saturday and breakfast and brunch on Sunday.

Miller said the main concern Friday is that each college will be holding a catered event, though the size of each event will vary.

Dinner on Saturday night will be the largest of the five ticketed meals of the weekend, Wenzel said, and an 80-foot by 220-foot tent will accommodate overflow seating outside South Dining Hall.

The Saturday dinner features the commencement cake, a large cake made up of separate smaller cakes. Each family receives one of the individual cakes, Wenzel said.

Wenzel sais there is only a small window for lunch between the University-wide commencement in the morning and the ceremonies of each college Sunday, so Food Services will prepare 3,000 to 4,000 boxed lunches for those who don’t have time for the Dining Hall brunch on Sunday.