Q&A with Ohio University's executive chef
Oct. 4, 2006
By Mary Reed
Matt Rapposelli, Ohio University's new executive chef, sits in his corner office in the Central Food Facility. He's wearing a white chef's jacket and just outside the picture window is the BMW motorcycle he rode to work today. The commute is new for Rapposelli, who spent the last 11 years walking down the stairs to the Big Chimney Baking Company, which he lived above. Located about five miles from campus, Big Chimney specializes in European hearth breads and has gained a large and devoted following in the Ohio University and Athens community.
Rapposelli offers a tour of the Central Food Facility, the clearinghouse for all the food that serves campus. It is home to a test kitchen, freezers, dry storage, a bakery, a vegetable prep room and a few offices. The dining hall operation is self-sustained; its entire budget comes from the meal plans that students purchase.
The executive chef position is a new one at Ohio University and Rapposelli, who has been on the job since May 1, is still figuring out what the position will entail. Much of the conversation is punctuated by a hearty laugh that would be maniacal if it weren't so cheery.
Outlook: What is executive chef?
Rapposelli: I am responsible for coordinating, supervising and directing all aspects of high quality food production in all retail operations, dining halls and catering functions on campus. Also, I am responsible for product development; interesting and unique menu selections; creating and implementing branded concepts; managing budgets and forecasts; and developing and conducting culinary training for dining services staff.
Outlook: What changes do you plan to implement in food services?
Rapposelli: First and foremost is trying to get back to as much made in-house as possible. The Central Food Facility houses a bakery. The bakery had gotten away from doing things from scratch. We're getting back to doing everything from scratch. Second would be consistency.
Outlook: In what way?
Rapposelli: Every way. Everything's going to be really well done.
Outlook: Does that mean we're going to see Big Chimney-quality bread in the dining halls?
Rapposelli: That's down the road, but yes, you will. They have a hierarchy of needs.
Outlook: Kind of like Maslow's hierarchy of needs?
Rapposelli: Kind of! Baker University Center (slated to open Jan. 1, 2007) will have four different food operations: a fine dining restaurant called Latitude 39 – the menu's in flux right now – and a food court that will have seven food concepts like Mexican, Italian, grill, deli, Asian, salad and a grab-and-go. The Front Room is moving over there; that space is really nice. And Baker Center catering.
Outlook: What are you most excited about?
Rapposelli: All of it. It's a pretty exciting job overall. What I was least excited about was the dining halls. But after having been here, it's moved toward the top of my list. I guess I had a set idea of what I thought it would be, but after talking with the people who work there, I'm excited about what they're doing.
Outlook: Dining hall food gets a bad rap. Deserved?
Rapposelli: I think people judge the dining halls unfairly. Overall, it is pretty good but we will be working on improving consistency. We are always looking for ways to improve.
Outlook: When do you go back for seconds at the dining hall?
Rapposelli: At Shively (Dining Hall), they have a hot salad day, which is really good. They stir-fry chicken and vegetables in a nice sauce and put it over fresh greens with a selection of other toppings.
Outlook: How does the "freshman 15" happen?
Rapposelli: I can see how the freshman 15 happens. You have people who all of a sudden have all these options for amazing stuff. It's easy to go back for second and third portions.
Outlook: Is there really such a thing as Grade F meat?
Rapposelli: Grade F meat! I suppose for dog food. All of our operations serve choice grade or better.
Outlook: An urban legend, then?
Rapposelli: At Boyd (Dining Hall), they get sirloin strip steaks. Those are pretty d***good. (The students) pay $4 extra and that's probably what that meat cost.
Outlook: Is the food going to improve nutritionally?
Rapposelli: I hope so. That all goes back to trying to make things from scratch as much as possible. What people don't grasp is the sheer volume of food produced here. It's impressive. All those things will happen but it will take time.
Outlook: What about sourcing from local farmers?
Rapposelli: We already purchase from local farmers but we will look for ways to expand this. For example, a case of tomatoes is about two minutes worth of time for a dining hall's needs. Where I'll be able to utilize local produce more realistically is the restaurant.
Outlook: Where do you source your ingredients?
Rapposelli: We have a contract with Gordon Food Service. They're the mom and pop of the giants. They're family owned and run.
Outlook: What is going to happen to the Oasis (the restaurant/market located between Alden Library and Morton Hall)?
Rapposelli: That's up in the air. Our hope is that it will become a grocery store – that's the biggest demand from student questionnaires.
Outlook: Why did you decide to move from owning your own bakery to becoming executive chef for Ohio University?
Rapposelli: Two days off in a week. I was working 6 1/2 days. Also, the challenge of the job was really appealing.
Outlook: How would you describe yourself?
Rapposelli: I don't know.
Outlook: What would you say if I used the word "jolly"?
Rapposelli: That works.
Outlook: How many rolls did you bake today?
Rapposelli: 132 dozen or 1,584 rolls, and that's a slow day!
Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.