Good Cooking Can’t be Half-Baked: The Executive Chef at Kutztown University Larry Gattens

Most of the students attending Kutztown University have been on the South Side of campus, whether it be for living, eating, or both. As far as those who have been eating on this side know, there are a wide array of options available at the South Dining Hall. However, there is a hidden gem lying in the kitchen of the South Side Cafe. He is known by many of the students as Chef Larry, and is also known for his great conversation and great food. His vibrant personality shines through his meals, or if you can catch him serving his creations himself on a night he may be short-staffed. I took an interest in his work because I felt it important for both myself and the students to know all about the food we put into our stomachs on a daily basis. This area is extremely popular, especially around dinner time, so I wanted to know what draws people in, and brings them back as well; as this is not the only option and majority of the student body chooses it over and over again. Mr. Gattens is primarily responsible for not only a trusted balance between healthy and less healthy foods, but also a way to keep his work sustainable. I will also feature some photos taken from the website, as taking personal photos within the Cafe is against their policy. I had the immense pleasure to talk to Mr. Gattens more, and learn all there is to know specifically about the food we eat here on the south side of Kutztown University, as well as the man himself who is the forerunner of it all. I met him in his place of work, and he arrived in his uniform, as he must have been working. He greeted me with a smile and handshake. We then sat down, him with his legs crossed. We engaged in idle conversation at first, talking about his plans for the dinner rush that evening, and as he explained in an orotund tone, using his hands to explain everything he said, I settled in with eager ears to listen.

Q: When did you become involved with food age-wise?

A: “I became involved with food around the time I was in high-school and stayed with it until I attended culinary school. Every job I had was either in the food industry or food-related. From the beginning of me being involved in food, I just wanted to learn more and more until I realized that it was what I wanted to do as a career. I am very fortunate to have had that beginning early-on, and I attribute much of my success to those early experiences.”

Q: How did that happen?

A: “The very first time I worked with food in a semi-professional way, was when I was in high school and volunteered in my school cafeteria. It began with me being just being there a couple of times a week, and increased more and more until I was there every day before and after school helping out. There seemed to be so many possibilities for me, so once I started, I just ran with it. After all, everybody needs to eat.”

Q: Describe your educational experiences?

A: “I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. It was such a well-rounded education, and I was lucky to have gone to school in an area that is so wildly populated with so many different culinary experiences to be had. New York is known for two things: fashion and food. I had such a great time learning from people that hailed from all over the world. It was almost as if I attended different schools at once just because of the differences in cooking each teacher brought to the table. It shaped my own dynamic style into something I don’t think can be picked up just anywhere.”

Q: Approximately how many years have you been a chef?

A: “I have been a Chef for twenty-eight years now, and I like looking back every year to see how I have grown from what I was when I first started, to what I am now. That is something you can always do to keep yourself motivated. Just think about what you used to be as far as your professional life is concerned, and it will always boost your confidence. It reminds you that you have the intelligence and the drive to keep bettering yourself.”

Q: What are your specific responsibilities as the Executive Chef?

A: “As the Executive Chef, I oversee all of the cooks, hire and train new cooks, write out schedules and job descriptions for them all, and also oversee all catering as far as the culinary aspect is viewed. My favorite thing is catering. It’s fun to get out of the kitchen, and take our show on the road. Of course, we never go too far, but it’s a lot fun doing events and seeing firsthand all of the people being satisfied by our hard work.”


Q: Are you involved with the choosing of ingredients used?

A: “We have a production manager, whose job is to captain residential menus. However, he consults me with the ingredients he is presented with. We meet to see what ideas I have for the ingredients he thinks is useful. If I have a suggestion that I think would be better, he looks into it. So, I am not directly in charge of the ingredients we use in the kitchen, but since I would be the one using them, my opinion is highly regarded as I am the one that knows how an ingredient can be used here to benefit the students in the most conscientious and varied way.”

Q: How do you go about assisting with choosing? What qualities do you seek?

A: “We use a system, that allows us to tract meals served and look at what products are trending higher in popularity, and use that information to dictate menu choices and ingredients for those meals on the menu. After deciding what ingredients to go with, they are found based on proximity of travel, and budget limits. We only seek ingredients that are healthy, clean, and within our budget. At no point in time does any of those factors suffer. I am really proud of that. Just because we want to save money, does not mean we want quality to decline.”

Q: How do you test those qualities?

A: “We look at the popularity of the sites we are interested in, we test them personally and compare them to reviews we have seen. If we are sure we want to work with them, we often meet with them to question them about any concerns and see if there is anything that can be done to improve the goodness of the product. We focus on freshness and naturalness.”

Q: Where are those ingredients purchased?

A: “They are purchased through a number of vendors. Some are local and some are out of state but on a nation-wide scale. When we purchase out of the area, we try to choose places that are established, tried and true. These are the places that can be trusted the most. When we purchase in the area, we always deal with the most experienced vendors. I like that we support both local and out-of-state merchandisers. It gives both parties a chance to  get support.”

Q: Is anything prepared off-campus?

A: “Although ingredients are purchased off-campus, everything that is touched hereafter is handled only on campus. We would never purchase ingredients that were already prepared in some way. We like putting our own personal touch in it. That’s part of why we do what we do. Why bother with calling oneself a chef if you don’t have much to do with the actual cooking?”

Q: Could you explain the protocol for storing food?

A: “We follow extremely strict guidelines, from the time we receive the product to the time it is served. Time and temperature of the food is controlled to make sure we keep it safe. For example, we store all of our fresh produce at 41-45 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything is checked periodically to make sure no harm has come to it. ”

Q: As far as making food, how do you cook to satisfy such a large, diverse group?

A: “We take advantage of the different stations we have in the Cafe to diversify options. For example, in the section titled, “Home”, we often serve food that would be seen on a dinner table at someone’s home, and that menu is changed from night to night to serve different cultural backgrounds. Then, there is the “Grill” section, which features foods that would most likely be seen at fast food joints. We also have Premium nights at the Cafe every Wednesday evening, which offers food that is more of a specialty. It is accompanied with a tossed salad and specialty dessert as well.”

Q: How many other chefs are available to you?

A: “The production manager I spoke of earlier also doubles as an Executive chef, and also available are two sous chefs. Together we all do a lot of the production at the Cafe. We are a very multifarious group, which is helpful, speaking to your question about the diversity of our menu. We have all had different experiences, therefore where one person may lack in an area of eating, the other makes up for, and vice versa. This way, we run as a well-oiled machine.”

Q: What additional help do you require?

A: “We also have a full service baking area that provides the baked goods for the Cafe and the coffee shops on campus. This is a separate area from the hot kitchen, but still within the Cafe. I like to go over to their area sometimes when I am not necessarily busy. I am a fan of sweets, so I like to watch them work. It’s also not an area of expertise for me, so I enjoy seeing cooking done on a different level.”

Q: What can you tell me specifically about the healthy options available and what makes them significantly more healthy than the rest of the menu?

A: “For this area, we try to stay away from any trans fats and oils. We try to utilize all of the vegetables and fruits we can. The point is to remain as natural as possible. If it does not come from the ground we stay away from it for these options. We are not experts, but we have been learning more and more as time has gone on. We have even accepted feedback from the students themselves regarding the situation. We want to know first hand what they want, what better way than to ask them?”

Q: How do you relate to sustainability, as it does not directly pertain to your cooking?

A: “I am not involved with sustainability. I do, however know what we do to stay green within the facility. We participate in water and energy conservation as it relates to the Green Thread initiative we have adopted. As far as food is concerned, we try to estimate as accurately as possible to avoid ordering too much product only to not use it in the end. It coincides with sustainability and also saving money to use for other beneficial things. I like we are keeping up with this trend. It is important to the overall well-being of the students. A happy, healthy world produces fruits and vegetables that are the same, right?”

Q: How do you get your inspiration?

A: “I go out and explore, both locally and not. I venture into new restaurants and food markets. I also talk to people I meet in these places. I like to get a feel for their cooking roots. That’s how I sometimes get new recipes or ideas for an ingredients. Everyone is connected by food, and I like to hear of peoples experience with it to get better acquainted with my own. I try to know everything there is to know about food. The more I know, the more I can create.”

I really enjoyed interviewing Mr. Gattens. He was such a humble and interesting individual. He was very easy-going, friendly, and polite. I wanted to learn more specifically about the food we consume because it directly affects us as students. It is very different than interviewing a restaurant in town. It is a place that has to deal with rules and guidelines set by the University itself, it is not its own individual facility. I was eager to learn of all the things that are done specifically to make us happy. I enjoy the South Side Cafe, and after speaking with the Chef, I appreciate it and enjoy it even more.

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