The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Going Behind the scenes with Café Mac’s executive chef Paul Tonkinson

cafe mac

Feeding over 1,000 students on the college’s meal plan is no easy task, but Café Mac’s executive sous chef, Paul Tonkinson, has the operation down to a science—or, more accurately, an art. Tonkinson’s enthusiasm and unrelenting push to innovate the food in Café Mac is a rare quality seen in a college dining service, but as someone who has worked with food for over forty years, Tonkinson brings a lot to the table.

Making a career out of being an executive chef requires relentless energy, but Tonkinson rises to the occasion. He is a man with fingers in many different pots, so to speak. Tonkinson runs not only Café Mac’s main cafeteria, but also the Grille, Nessie’s, the Atrium, Scotty’s, and Bon Appetit’s catering service.

When Tonkinson arrives at 5:15am, the kitchen is already buzzing with chefs preparing for the day. Before the cafeteria even opens, the staff participate in a variety of check-in and safety meetings to go over important information and to ensure that food is prepared in a safe and healthy manner.

According to Tonkinson, “A cook is no different from a surgeon or a dentist,” since all three professions work with things that go inside the body. Tonkinson’s role as executive chef involves creating a menu that will delight, inspire, and push the boundaries of the college dining experience.

The wealth of knowledge in the 73 full-time and 12 part-time employees also helps keep everything running smoothly. Some staff members have worked with Café Mac for up to seventeen years, and all staff members are encouraged to contribute their unique experiences and skills to the Bon Appetit community.

With the equivalent of nearly 25,000 individual meals to prepare each week, the amount of food entering the back doors of Café Mac each day is massive. Throughout the day, Café Mac receives deliveries from a whole host of suppliers, from local farmers to nationwide distributors. Juggling the multitude of incoming deliveries is a tricky process, but Café Mac staff manage the incoming deliveries handily.

Part of Bon Appetit’s role in innovating the college dining experience at Café Mac involves changing the traditional model of food sourcing. Unlike many college dining services, Café Mac has a commitment to supporting local economies through direct purchasing from local farmers. One of these farms is Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, run by a Macalester alum.

Each week, Chef Matt Weed spends between five and ten hours researching local food options to supplement Bon Appetit’s Farm to Fork program. Additionally, about 30 percent of food in Café Mac is purchased from Sysco and around 15 percent from Bix, both large-scale national food vendors.

When making purchasing decisions, Tonkinson keeps appropriate food quantities in mind, and actively works to minimize waste. “Throwing food away, I find that criminal!” he exclaimed.

Because the food waste generated from the cooking process (such as inedible rinds and peels) and student food waste are shipped off to a hog farm to be used as feed as part of the Food to Hogs program, the majority of landfill-bound waste from Café Mac is made up of food packaging materials, like plastic wrap and styrofoam. Café Mac has also made the switch to compostable take-out containers and silverware at the Grille and other locations in order to reduce landfill-bound waste.

The Café Mac staff also gets creative when working to minimize waste through batch cooking. Most ingredients are prepared by Café Mac in “deconstructed” form, meaning that the individual components have been cooked but not combined.

Batch cooking of these deconstructed ingredients allows them to be used in more than one meal if there is surplus. Amy Hungerford, a Café Mac chef, draws upon her background as a food truck owner to envision creative solutions to reuse food that has been cooked once.

Above all, Café Mac staff are committed to ensuring that students are satisfied with the food. Most lunches, Tonkinson can be found walking around the floor of Café Mac, mingling with the students to gauge their preferences. He uses this information to adapt and improve. “We massage the plan, we don’t dictate it,” Tonkinson explained.

Café Mac is committed to working towards its goal of fresh, local, and delicious food options for the students of Macalester. “We work in a very emotionally charged environment,” Tonkinson said. “You can never take the emotion out of food.”

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