Yale’s Foodservice Chief Tabbed For Top National Silver Plate

Rafi Taherian

Yale University’s Rafi Taherian has been nominated for top national 2016 Silver Plate honors for college and university foodservice from the International Foodservice Manufacturer’s Association (IFMA).

Rafi Taherian, who is the New Haven based Associate Vice President of Yale Hospitality, will be in Chicago late this month to accept his award and to vie for the prestigious Gold Plate honor. One Silver Plate winner among the nine will be chosen by the jury to receive the foodservice industry’s most prestigious recognition, IFMA’s Gold Plate Award, which will be announced at the 62nd Annual Gold & Silver Plate Awards Celebration taking place in Chicago on May 21 during the annual National Restaurant Association show. 

The Silver Plate honor, often called the “Academy Award” for foodservice, singles out Taherian and his team, Yale Hospitality (formerly called Yale Dining), for leading the best foodservice operation at any college or university in the nation.

Taherian, who will attend along with some 1,000 other attendees at the formal ceremony, says that this award “really tells an amazing story about Yale Hospitality as a whole. It is a tribute not just to our operation but to all of our employees.”

Yale Hospitality includes 32 separate establishments, among them the dining halls at the residential colleges; Commons at the Schwarzman Center; convenience stores like Durfees; and cafés and restaurants, including those at the Yale School of Management, Yale’s West Campus, and the Yale Golf Course. Taherian took over Yale Dining as it transitioned from an outsourced contract operation to Yale management.

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“It was very unusual at the time for college foodservice to be brought back under the management of the institution,” says Taherian, “and it was also extremely challenging.” The transition, he explains, required building a team to provide operational leadership, purchasing, menu development, culinary quality assurance, communication, facility design, and finance and business administration all while convincing the university community that the new foodservice system would indeed be an improvement.

“Much has changed during his eight years at Yale,” Taherian says. Sustainably sourced, wholesome food is now served in all venues at all meal periods (rather than being reserved for one dining hall or one meal period). What differentiates Yale “Hospitality from most of its peers is that sustainability and wellness are not just initiatives, but have been implemented across all operations, often years before others in the industry did so,” says Gerry Remer, director of supply chain and sustainability for Yale Hospitality. 

Beginning with an “Erase the Waste” initiative in 2008, Yale Hospitality has continued to reduce its overall use of resources, including food, energy, water, and chemicals. Organic waste is composted and non-organic waste is recycled.

“Sustainability has been a central part of what we do,” says Taherian. “As we have moved toward healthier eating, we also work hard toward creating a healthier environment.”

Yale Hospitality serves some 14,000 meals a day on campus, but Rafi Taherian says that his team’s greater mission is to create memorable experiences.

“Food may be at the center, but what students and guests remember is the experience,” says Taherian, noting for example, that graduating seniors often cite the Freshman Holiday Dinner  when freshmen are treated to a formal holiday-themed meal in a decorated University Commons at the Schwarzman Center as one of the highlights of their Yale experience.

“In all of these, food is the catalyst, but what we are really doing is creating events that bring parts of the university together,” says Taherian. “Food, after all, is really about relationships, and that is what our students and other members of our community are doing here having conversations in our dining halls and building relationships.”

In addition to supporting local and regional farmers and businesses through its purchasing choices, Yale Hospitality donates food to several New Haven soup kitchens, including the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen and St. Thomas More.

In 2012, Yale Hospitality launched the Northeast Purchasing Group Initiative to partner with other large-scale institutions on purchasing, and in 2013, Yale Hospitality hosted the first Northeast Purchasing Group Sustainability Conference to explore consensus around sustainability criteria and goals. With these institutions’ combined purchasing power comes the ability to influence availability and affordability of sustainable and healthy food options, not just for institutions but for the public, Taherian says.

“It is also a bonus to have staff members that are at the top of their craft,” he continues. “Yale Hospitality is a nationally recognized organization and in the past several years, Yale chefs have won gold medals in the National Association of College & University Food Services competition, and in 2015 the staff members in the Yale Bakery won the university’s Linda K. Lorimer Award for distinguished service.”

Rafi Taherian says that winning the Silver Plate Award is also a testament to wider support of the university and its community.