New York Trained Chef Now Heads Food Services
By Maria Elena Cruz
For many students, eating at the cafeteria was not necessarily something to look forward to. This year, however, new OLLU Food Service Director and Head Chef Justin Blankenship is changing that. “I came in, after listening to what students had to say, and totally transformed the menu.” And when he says transformed the menu, he means it. “We came up with a 92-page menu that will be on a 42-day-rotation,” said Blankenship. Gone are the days of boring repetitive menu choices. Now students will have the option to choose from a vast array of menu items, including healthier choices catering to the pickiest eaters.
Constant complaints from students coupled with bad health department scores led the university to make big changes to management. This proved beneficial to chef Blankenship, as he was able to come in and work with a clean slate. “Basically when they hired me,” he said, “they told me anything that has to do with food service, you are in charge of, and you do what you want, make it your own.”
Having traveled the world, chef Blankenship is planning to introduce an exotic menu item from a different country made fresh in-house every day. This is just another way, as he told the Lake Front, he plans to make the menu “fun” and not boring for students. “Our ‘stir it up’ menu is something we brought in and is pretty popular, we had Pad Thai last time and it went over very, very well with people, I think it was one of those things that people were not expecting. We change this particular menu every day, we have some power greens coming up and we’ll let people kind of build their own salads, they could add their own ingredients themselves,” he said.
The chef genuinely wants to hear students out, partly because he was a student himself. While studying in New York, he put himself through college by doing exactly what he loves. “I had my own food truck in New York, and that’s pretty much how I put myself through school.” This is why he says it is important to him to make sure he is listening to what the Blue Nation is telling him. “Being a chef by trade, I pride myself on food, I pride myself on service, and one of the things that I wanted to improve on here was our interaction with the Blue Nation, I wanted to make it a place where people walk in a they go ‘wow’, I feel this place is a very special place and has a unique brand, I want to tap into that, capture it.”
One thing the chef points out is the incredible response he has received from his staff and the welcome from the university. “I’m very fortunate, I’m blessed to have such a terrific team of talented individuals that surround me and I can bounce my crazy ideas off,” he said, “and the welcome I have received from all the staff, the athletics department in particular, has been amazing.”
When asked about his hopes for future endeavors chef Blankenship says he intends to think outside the box when it comes to feeding the Blue Nation. Putting together a good ‘ol Texas barbecue proved to be one of his most successful ventures thus far. “The Texas barbecue event we held was big, we had Monster Energy drinks out here and they set up shop right next to us, they gave out free samples to students and we grilled brisket, sausage, beans and potato salad, it was a hit both with students and staff. I mean, we sold out of 300 pounds of brisket in less than an hour.” With this kind of turn-out, it’s clear the OLLU community has welcomed Blankenship with open arms and empty stomachs.