Earlier this year, I traveled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The National Credit Union Foundation was hosting the first of three Credit Union Development Education training sessions. The week long, intensive adult learning program necessitates an environment that can accommodate several working groups and general sessions as well as food and lodging for the participants for a week.
Enter the Rizzo Conference Center. The Rizzo is owned by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and managed by Destination Hotels & Resorts, the fourth largest independent hospitality management company in the country. Take a look at how lovely this place is. On the property is the historic DuBose House, a graceful, 20,000 square foot Georgian Revival home built in 1933 that majestically overlooks the 435 acres known as “Meadowmont.”
Through the Destination Earth® program, the Rizzo is dedicated to practices and programs that pay respect to, and lessen the center’s footprint on our changing environment. In particular, the center’s Sustainability Program includes these environmental initiatives:
- No More Styrofoam: All styrofoam cups have been eliminated from the property.
- Water Conservation: Laundry and dish washing machines operate at 100% capacity. 100% of faucets, toilets and showerheads produce low flow water. Re-use cards for towels and linens are placed in every guestroom.
- Sustainable Food Practices: Organic herbs are grown on property grounds and used in the cuisines. 40% of menu items are either organic or locally grown. Surplus food from breaks and meals is donated to a local food shelter. Leftover food is composted along with paper cups and plates.
- Reducing Waste from Meetings: All meeting rooms have water bottle re-use cards instructing participants to indicate if they want to keep their bottle when the staff refreshes for lunch. At the end of the day the staff recycles all leftover glass and plastic bottles. All meeting rooms are also equipped with paper recycling bins.
- Electricity: Incandescent lighting has been replaced with florescent bulbs in guestrooms, common areas, meeting spaces and offices.
- Operations: Rizzo purchases recycled service and office paper products. In addition, we recycle paper, plastic, cardboard, cans and bottles. Toner and ink cartridges are returned to the manufacturers for recycling.
- Air Quality: The center is a non-smoking facility.
The Rizzo is ranked a 4-key facility (the second highest rating) by the Green Key Eco-Rating Program and a Gold Tiered property (again, the second highest rating) in the Green Star program of the International Association of Conference Centers. The Center is a non-smoking facility.
Of course, what interested me most was how the Rizzo implements these initiatives in relation to their food service. I had the good fortune to speak with Joseph Hofman, Director of Food and Beverage, and Executive Chef Chris Harmelink about the uniqueness of the Rizzo and how the approach to sustainability and green practices works in the food side of the business.
HH: Given the environmental initiatives of Destination Resorts & Hotels, how did you begin to build a team that could deliver?
JH: “We assembled a food and beverage team that really focuses on a collaborative approach between the managers, supervisors, chefs and food preparers. Our motto is “Food quality must rule.” To that end, we do things differently here.”
HH: Such as?
JH: “Well, we offer communal breaks for groups so that more than one group may share a coffee or afternoon break. This wastes less food and allows us to offer more variety. We serve some items in bulk, like milk and juice in the morning. Less packaging, less trash, less impact on the environment.”
HH: Turning to you, Chef Harmelink, what’s your approach to sourcing as much of your food locally for your cooking? How do you try to accomplish that?
CH: “Although we are under a corporate contract to use approved vendors for a certain percentage of what we buy, we purchase almost all of our produce and seafood through local produce and seafood purveyors. Though our business model and volume of production unfortunately do not allow us to make daily trips to the local farmers market, our purveyors are excellent at highlighting products, via email availability blasts which are local and are in season. In developing menus we try to anticipate the growing seasons and incorporate those items into our menus that change seasonally. With the colder weather that becomes more difficult, not just for us but for the chef in general, for some items (tomatoes, peppers, onions, melons, etc.) that we can get locally for half of the year are not available, and thus we must look outside the region. We do plant an extensive herb garden annually, everything from different varieties of basil to epazote (editor’s note: a spice to Mexican cooking that has a slightly tangy flavor similar to oregano. It’s most commonly found in bean dishes, soup and moles) and lavender, which we are able to utilize for about 5 months out of the year, significantly decreasing our need to outsource those items.”
HH: How do you approach cooking in a catering/hotel environment? In other words, your meals aren’t the average “rubber chicken” one expects at conference center venues. Rather, they are lovely gourmet selections that were a delight to try. What drives your menu design?
CH: “We are a rather unique property in that our guests are with us for a week at a time for several meal service periods during the day. This is probably one of the more challenging aspects of our job. We exert a lot of effort trying to minimize repetition, in hopes of avoiding “food fatigue”, and anticipating nutritional/dietary needs for our guests. We could easily put a pound of butter into everything we make to make it taste better, as you might find happening at your favorite high-end restaurant; but their objective is to make that one meal fantastic and memorable, and our goal is to provide not only a consistently delicious meal but to try to accommodate a large variety of likes/dislikes and dietary behaviors at one time. We also think about what we are feeding you and how it is affecting the ultimate goal of your visit, which is to learn.
Well, I am glad that you did not run into any ‘rubber chicken’ here at the Rizzo center, and thank you for the nice words. Cooking for a large quantity of people versus one plate at a time, as you would find at an A La Carte operation are just different skill sets. I have seen a lot of great line cooks who easily get overwhelmed with the thought of banquet style cooking, and the same can be said for a banquet cook jumping onto a hot line. Having done both, we try to incorporate as many ‘A la minute’ principles which are present in line cooking as much as possible to our banquet operation; it just takes a lot of organization, planning, time management, and staging of products to ensure we put out the best product we can. Fresh is always better, right? Luckily I have the very talented staff that dislikes cooking ‘rubber chicken’ as much as you probably dislike eating it.”
HH: Amen to that! How does composting fit in to your kitchen’s routine? Why is making composting such a priority an important thing to do from your chef’s perspective?
CH: “On why we think it is an important thing for us to do; I would like to say that the only reason is environmental, which to a large degree, it is, but there are financial and sanitation benefits as well. It definitely makes you feel good to know that those onion scraps or cooked veal bones are being placed back into the cycle of life and that they may well turn into the fertilizer which will be used to grow our tomatoes this summer, that is very rewarding.
Some of the financial benefits coincide with the environmental benefits; we see less usage of plastic trash bags and subsequently, between recycling and composting we have reduced the amount of waste that is not reusable drop significantly. Less dumpster pickups is not only a way for us to decrease our footprint, but it also benefits the bottom line. The operation is also a lot cleaner since we have implemented composting. Our trashcans and dumpsters have significantly less odor, thus less flies, which is very evident at 95 degrees in the middle of August.
The composting process can be a little challenging and sometimes inconvenient, but just like everything when practiced it just becomes part of your daily routine. We have to separate compostable material and discard it into a large composting bin which is removed at the end of each shift and placed in the outside loading dock area; the compost bins are then dumped and cleaned twice a week through a service, which is free as long as we are diligent about following the guidelines (minimizing non-compostable material in the bins).
I will say that when we first started the composting process, I was extremely tentative, only seeing the perceived additional hassle and workload, but in the end I feel we actually save labor through composting and at the same time trying to do our part for our local environment.”
HH: One of my favorite dishes I had at the Rizzo was your kale salad. As I’ve admitted to many people before, I just wasn’t feeling the love for the kale. And just recently, I met a chef on Maui, Sheldon Simeon of MiGRANT, who also had a way with kale. Would you mind sharing how you make it?
CH: Actually, it’s pretty simple. We use baby kale, golden raisins, ricotta salata (parmesan or manchego would work as well), and some thinly sliced shallots that were dusted in flour and fried. We lightly dress the salad with salt and pepper, sherry vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil.
I go to a lot of conferences. I eat a lot of conference food. What a huge pleasure it was to spend time on a property that diligently works to create a more sustainable environment on all fronts, including the foodie front. Kudos Rizzo!