Sustainable studies: Cornell University’s commitment to certified seafood
Steven Miller is Director of Culinary Operations at prestigious Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Cornell received MSC’s Chain of Custody certification in 2012 and all the wild-caught seafood served across its 30 eateries is certified sustainable. Cornell also serves sustainable farmed seafood. Steven talks to us about his career and Cornell’s commitments to sustainability.
Can you tell me about your career as a chef and how you ended up at Cornell?
I started working in restaurants at a young age, washing dishes when I was 15. I happened to be lucky enough to work with some very talented, white tablecloth chefs when I was very young. The first restaurant I opened was the Greystone Inn in Ithaca, NY and at the age of 20, I moved to La Jolla, California to open my second restaurant.
It was probably the perfect time to be moving into food service, and being in California as the food revolution was going on in the early 80s. Every day we’d go to pick up vegetables from Chino’s, this beautiful vegetable farm in Southern California. We’d pick them that morning and serve them at the restaurants that night. At the same time Wolfgang Puck was getting started, and he was picking vegetables from the same place I was. It was a huge time of growth, working with chefs in southern California.
In 1989, I moved back to New York to get married and start a family. I went back to work at the Greystone Inn in Ithaca. I worked there for several years. I wanted to buy the restaurant; but the current owners didn’t want to sell. So I went to work for some other businesses in New York, and ultimately in 1996 came to Cornell.
I took a job as the cook here, and immersed myself to see what was going on with collegiate cooking and large-scale cooking. I got promoted to sous chef in about 2004. Now I’m in charge of 30 eateries and about 700 student employees serving approximately 22,000 meals per day.
What inspired you to make a commitment to seafood sustainability?
I spent some time in the Monterey Bay area about five years ago and we started moving towards the Seafood Watch standards of sustainability. At Cornell we have a lot of local growing on campus, along with an orchard and dairy, so seafood sustainability just makes sense to me. It’s another area of sustainability that we can work on.
Being in Monterey got it all started, and then I got in touch with Don Miller (not related), Executive Chef at The University of Notre Dame and he was able to bring me up to speed about what they were doing with MSC.
What motivated Cornell University to pursue MSC’s Chain of Custody certification?
Sustainability in any form is always important when you’re a land-locked institution. I had students I worked with, and once we started working towards MSC certification, more people came out of the woodwork with regard to the issue of sustainability of our oceans. Cornell is always looking for ways to improve sustainability and wanted to move forward with being more sustainable with its seafood purchases.
Can you walk me through the process that you went through to achieve certification?
Maggie [MSC Americas Commercial Manager] was instrumental in making sure we had everything we needed and Chef Don Miller from Notre Dame wrote a “how to” on the certification process that I’ve shared with 10-12 peer institutions at this point. By the time we started working on the process to the time we received certification, it was about 3-4 weeks. Chef Don gave me such a great roadmap, it was fairly painless.
Are there other sustainability practices that Cornell University’s food service operation has in place?
Yes. We’re buying over 24% of our produce and dairy locally and regionally. We do pre- and post-consumer composting. One of the great things about our compost is that it ends up supplying power back to the University. Our first compost gets put through a processer, and ultimately gets burned to supply steam back to the University. It’s a full circle. We compost over 800 tons of pre- and post-consumer waste in a year. We are actually providing power by burning it. Then you put it together with hay from the agriculture school and trimmings from the grounds people. That is unique. I’m not sure if anyone else is doing it, but Cornell is.
How did students, faculty, and staff respond once MSC certified seafood started to be served on campus?
We brought [celebrity chef and author] Barton Seaver to campus to provide seafood training with all culinary staff, small groups of 25-30 each, to talk about sustainability and seafood. Barton laid a nice foundation for us. Then we had champions across campus who were passionate about it. They picked up the ball and moved it forward. The faculty was happy, the many students concerned about sustainability were happy, and we started doing an educational program with posters, flyers, and emails sent to student populations to try to create more interest.
How do you select which MSC certified fish make it onto your menu?
With 30 different menus for each meal across campus, we have plenty of opportunity to find different kinds of fish and serve it and make it viable. We have 13 executive chefs on campus and we have a monthly menu meeting where we go through how we’re going to move through the next month’s menu process. Along with our nutritionist, we will have outlined our purveyors, and determined which fish fits our cost model. Then, during that time, we decide how many portions, what recipe, etc.
We have also done special events. For example, we’ve had MSC certified sushi nights, and instead of eel we’ve bought sablefish. That evening, there were 750 individual rolls of sushi that served over 2,000 students. And it was in our all-you-care-to-eat facility so they could just keep coming back, and obviously they did.
What is the most popular MSC certified seafood dish you serve?
My favorite is the salmon during the time of the year when they are coming out of Alaska. We’ll fly it in, and we have a night when we’re just doing different forms of salmon. We have everything from wasabi and hazelnut-encrusted salmon, to green curry sauce, to simple lightly poached salmon, or oven roasted on cedar plates served with a variety of sauces. Each chef puts their own twist to it.
What would you say to other colleges and universities considering MSC’s Chain of Custody certification?
I would say that the certification process is not nearly as daunting as one might believe and there are plenty of people out there willing to help you work through the process. I see it as our duty to start doing the right thing, to make sure we are buying fish responsibly, being sustainable for the world, and letting the oceans repopulate themselves. When you feed 22,000 people a day, as opposed to your local restaurant that may serve 100 per evening, we can make a huge difference. It’s part of our duty as good stewards to use the resources we’re given and to only use MSC certified fish.
Images courtesy of Cornell University Photography.
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