Entering the kitchens in the basement of Valentine Dining Hall is like entering a more intense version of the seating area at noon on a Monday. It’s loud from the dishes being washed, it’s smokey from the burgers being grilled for burger night and it’s very easy to bump into the people and equipment that fill up the space. Yet Stefania Patinella, Amherst’s new executive chef hired in July, navigates the commotion-filled kitchens with ease.
She first stops to chat with the garde manger, who’s slicing up cucumbers for the salad bar, and then checks in with the chef making red pepper hummus. Patinella walks into the next room and checks on the burgers and the chefs grilling them. Then she almost pirouettes to another chef to work out a scheduling conflict, before advising someone else on whether the wedge-shaped potatoes will cook all the way through.
When she finally steps out of the kitchens and walks out of the dining hall toward the first-year quad, Patinella jokes that she needs to be at least 20 paces away from the dining hall to do anything uninterrupted.
Patinella grew up in an Italian family where “food was the most important thing you could possibly provide for your children,” she said. Her childhood was filled with healthy, nutritious foods.
This experience with homemade food from locally-sourced ingredients is something that Patinella plans on developing during her time at Amherst.
“The chef before me came from a restaurant background and many of the items that have a lot of care in them are also very restaurant-y,” she said. “They’re somewhat rich and that’s nice to some degree … but my way of approaching food is to have a lighter touch. Things that are a little bit simpler, a little bit lighter and fresher. This is a direction that the whole country is going in, so I’m not unusual in this and of course not everybody wants to eat this way, so there will always be variety.”
Although she’s never worked in a college dining setting before, Patinella found herself drawn to the intersection between education and food.
“I’ve done some work in restaurants, but not a lot, and this just feels like a great niche,” she said. “Working in restaurants has never been my thing because it’s a little bit of a passive experience, which can be nice. I want to go to restaurants and have someone prepare my meal sometimes, but the mission is not usually an educational space, whereas here the mission is education and I think food should be part of that education.”
Patinella hopes to create more ways for students to customize their meals. She plans on adding new ingredients, like sesame oil and tamari, to the salad bar area so students can make their own dressings.
Another change she wants to implement is adding a burrito bar and other more customizable lunches beyond sandwiches.
“If I could right now snap my fingers and make everything different, we’d do a lot more meals that are custom and to-order,” Patinella said. “We’re not set up for that right now, but we can approximate that a little bit. There’s a ton of creativity in how people navigate Val and the more I can understand about how people do that, the better options I can give.”
Patinella first developed her interest in food when she started working as a grant writer at a nonprofit based in New York City called the Children’s Aid Society. On her lunch breaks she would walk over to a nearby farmers’ market.
“I got into cooking because there was a farmers’ market that was really close to my office that was [open] four days a week,” Patinella said. “I was living really on my own for the first time and began spending more and more time at the farmers’ market.”
Patinella’s interest in food led her to the Natural Gourmet Institute, a culinary school that focuses on health and sustainability.
“It’s about cuisine that is as good for your body as it is for the earth as it is for the preservation and dissemination of interesting cultures,” she said. “It ended up being the right choice for me.”
From there, she continued her food education in Italy, researching, studying and farming on a Fulbright grant.
In 2006, Patinella returned to the Children’s Aid Society to launch a food and nutrition program for the 70,000 children and families served by the organization. The program taught children and parents how to cook and also educated middle schoolers and high schoolers on food justice. Each day, Patinella worked to serve the children healthier foods.
“The food at Children’s Aid Society was like most food programs at children’s nonprofits — so chicken nuggets, pizza and those sorts of things,” Patinella said. “So we transitioned the food program, which fed about 4,000 kids a day, to a from-scratch, largely plant-based menu.”
In her free time, Patinella has been spending time getting to know western Massachusetts through one of her favorite pastimes: foraging.
“I really like hiking and foraging, particularly foraging for wild edibles,” Patinella said. “I love to get to know my environment by peering very closely at every little plant. I was at the farm and just looking around and thinking that there’s so much wild stuff we could also bring into Val.”