Photo courtesy of sustain.sewanee.edu
At 1:30 p.m. lunchtime rush hour is winding down in McClurg as Sewanee’s Executive Chef, Rick Wright walks down the balcony stairs and stands next to the railing. With his hands in his pockets, he slowly scans the dining hall with a deep and focused gaze. It takes no longer than 30 seconds for a student with a plate full of food to approach Wright. The conversation is short but full of smiles and laughter. Before this conversation ends, another student appears, waiting to get a word with Wright. After observing him for just three minutes, it appears that Wright cannot make it more than fifteen feet in McClurg without being approached by a student – but that is exactly the way he likes it.
One would be hard-pressed to find a man more dedicated and passionate about his job than Wright. The 56-year-old Chattanooga resident arrives at Sewanee no later than 5 a.m. to begin his workday. He spends his first hour checking messages and responding to emails, and by 7:30 a.m. the kitchen staff is in full production mode. Wright makes his way to each station to ensure all have enough help and supplies to efficiently prepare and serve meals. Throughout the day, Wright ventures out into the dining hall, checks on the students, notes which daily items are popular, like the anticipated Thursday grilled cheese and tomato soup bar, and observes the variety and colors of foods on students’ plates. Wright stays busy throughout the day with administrative work and the maintaining of each food station, but he always makes time to interact with the students. We sat down with Wright on October 21, on the balcony of McClurg to learn more about his past, his time at Sewanee, and his passion for local food options. Wearing his uniform, white shirt monogrammed with “Rick Wright, Executive Chef” in Sewanee purple thread and a huge rosy-cheeked smile, this forty-year food industry veteran with silver hair and a trimmed beard has a bright light in his blue eyes when talking about Sewanee students and dining.
Sewanee Purple: How long have you been at Sewanee and what were you doing prior?
Rick Wright: I’ve been at Sewanee for 5 years. I came here in 2010. Prior to that I worked for a company called Compass Group and was executive chef. And prior to Compass Group, I was executive chef at Girls Preparatory School [Chattanooga], and before that I was an executive chef at Coca-Cola. So I’ve essentially been an executive chef for most of my adult career. I started working in fast food when I was fourteen. I cleaned pots and pans at a local diner when I was twelve. So like I’ve said, I’ve always worked with food. I’m 56 this year so I’ve been doing this for over 40 years.
SP: In your past jobs, did you often incorporate local foods into your menu?
RW: Oh, absolutely. I think that every chef tries to find the freshest available product. Working in higher education and working primarily with young people, I have a responsibility to provide the most nutritious, best quality product I can afford. When I was at the Girls Preparatory School I started a vegetarian line. I got in trouble because I started it, but that vegetarian line is still there. What I found was that when I first put out the vegetarian and vegan meals it was mostly faculty that ate it. But as the students and the young people began eating it they liked how they felt after they ate that food. Same thing happened here. When I got here you had a vegetarian line, but it was mostly processed foods. It wasn’t focused on fresh foods. So that’s the first thing I changed here. We converted it over to full vegan line, focused on fresh healthy foods and also ethnically diverse foods instead of just beans and rice.
SP: What brought you to Sewanee?
RW: I came here specifically because there was required reading of “The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals”. When I was looking at job offers that I had at the time, I had a few, I was really impressed with the fact that a university would require the incoming freshmen class the read the most influential book of many years for chefs. That book was kind of a turning point for me and my approach to food. I always wanted to do fresh food. Because of that book, I started researching more about our food delivery system. And I realized we have a responsibility as chefs to make those choices. There’s the grower, the producer, the eater. We all make a choice every day about the food we want to eat. The reason we have the problems that we do today with our food is because we’ve made choices based on price instead of what’s best for us individually or environmentally. Most of eating is kind of an unconscious act. We kind of sleep walk through it through the day. If you read my emails, you know I talk to you about that and being aware of where you are and the decisions that you make. I started doing a lot of soul searching as a chef. And I realized the only way we can change the system is to buy locally and support local farmers.
SP: How important are fresh, local foods and how do you incorporate them into the dining hall daily?
RW: Most of the produce in the dining hall is all local. You know, we buy almost three times as much produce now as we did previously. So you have fresh vegetables everywhere. In the last two years we’ve increased the amount that we purchase locally tremendously. I buy from the South Cumberland Food Hub and I buy directly for farmers as well. We have an ongoing relationship with many farmers on the Cumberland Plateau. One of my jobs outside the University of the South is the director of the South Cumberland Food Hub, and I also work as an advisor the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. So I take this very seriously. And I take it seriously because I want you guys to eat the best possible food I can give to you. College students have a very stressful four years of school, but you shouldn’t have to worry about coming into the dining hall and eating nothing but cereal and fast food. You should have nutritious options. I continually fight every day for more nutritious options. We have to adapt to your demands for food. Some of you stay up late studying and come in late, so you don’t want to eat a heavy meal. That’s why we’re running the omelet station all day long now, to meet those needs. I respond to almost every comment on our Facebook page and all emails. I guess the bottom line is we really care. I really care about what you’re eating. I have daughters that are a little bit older than you. I brought them up to eat fresh, local foods. We have a lot of processed foods in the dining hall. It’s difficult to produce 3000 meals a day with no processed foods, but primarily we’re a from-scratch kitchen, and I started that four years ago.
SP: How closely do you work with the University Farm and what is your relationship like?
RW: I’m really sad that Gina [Raicovich] is leaving. It almost makes me tear up. We have a great relationship, we’re friends, and I’m sad to see her go. I think that it’ll be hard to find someone as dynamic, talented, creative, and with the vision that she had. She had a vision for that farm and it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t realized. I just told her what I wanted and she grew it. It was that simple. We get food from the farm every day.
SP: What are some of the most rewarding parts of your job?
RW: The most rewarding part of my job is getting to talk to students and seeing how I can make their life better. We’re here to make sure that you’re well fed and comfortable. The McClurg Dining Hall is essentially your dining hall, like your kitchen at home when you’re not at home. We want you to feel like you’re here with friends and family and that you’re in a safe place. We hope there’s something here to comfort you here if you’re having a bad day, whether that’s peanut butter fudge pie or grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Seeing you satisfied and happy and knowing that you’re doing well – that’s the best part of my job.
SP: Does any particular moment on the job stand out the most? RW: When I walk out into the dining hall and look at students’ plates. When I first came here I saw a lot of white food on plates. Now I see a lot of color on plates. So I know that I’ve made an impact, and that makes me feel really good. So all of that typing, and menu planning, and getting people to think about what they’re eating is paying off. When I look at you walking through the dining hall and I see everybody is happy and excited about certain things, I feel really good. When I look at your plate and I see greens and reds and dark yellows and smaller protein portions, that makes me feel good. I’ve seen a real shift in the consciousness of eaters and that’s very encouraging, and this has to happen. We have some real challenges coming up distribution wise, environmentally, and population wise. It’s exciting to see you guys thinking about what you’re eating. If you eat well, you definitely will be well.