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Chef Dennis Develops Plant Based Food Culture at Dillard University

Chef Dennis Develops Plant Based Food Culture at Dillard University
Posted By: D'Juan Hopewell on June 08, 2021

Chef Dennis Dunn comes from a small town in Louisiana where his family grew their own vegetables. His upbringing makes perfect sense, given the revolution he’s currently leading at one of the nation’s most prestigious historically Black institutions, Dillard University. This revolution is as much political as it is personal. It’s a shift in values, priorities, and preferences, which will ultimately have lasting implications for the communities Dillard students will eventually choose to call home. Dennis Dunn is a chef in the center of a plant-based revolution that is one part delicious and one part conscious.

Chef Dennis arrived at Dillard one year ago, just as the COVID pandemic was emerging. He saw a number of opportunities to improve the student experience and took careful notes of student reactions. Some wanted food from back home, others wanted variety, and all wanted to make better choices on what they consumed. Chef Dennis wanted to forge deeper relationships with the students and although COVID protocols restricted him from shaking hands, he would stand at the entrance of the dining hall and give them a hearty, “Gimme some!” which would be met with an elbow bump. This icebreaker became a trend, and soon the students began greeting him the same way.

Each day Chef Dennis scanned his domain to find the one student who was unhappy. He would then approach the student, and attempt to get to the root of their problem. One day he saw a student cringing, and that she was hesitant to eat. He asked why and it turned out that she didn’t like the food on her plate to touch. So, Chef Dennis volunteered each day to make her plate personally, and carefully placed each item so that it did not touch the corresponding food choice.

Chef Dennis has earned the trust of Dillard’s students and that, more than anything, has allowed him to change their diets.

The small changes came first, like replacing frozen vegetables with fresh ones. The students took notice and Chef Dennis gradually began to introduce more plant-based options, often making plant-based versions of local favorites. Shrimp étouffée magically became vegetable étouffée, and vegetable jambalaya was offered in lieu of classic jambalaya. Next came a full plant-based station in the dining hall where students could order fresh entrees with a variety of sauces and savory blends, from Asian noodle stir fry to portobello mushrooms with any number of twists.

The students at Dillard haven’t just tolerated the changes—they’ve actually come to prefer them.

Although Chef Dennis has cooked for several celebrities and dignitaries, his success in getting coeds to try new foods has likely been his most impressive accomplishment. Much of it has been a product of his culinary skills, but just as important, his big personality has emphatically helped to encourage the changes.

While interacting with students in the dining hall, Chef Dennis overheard a student say, “I wish my Momma was here.” He asked why, and the student explained how her mother made “the best red beans and rice” at home. Upon learning that, Chef Dennis asked the student to get her mother’s recipe; she did, and the next week Chef Dennis delivered.

Chef Dennis has delivered for students consistently in part because of the support he receives from Sodexo, the company that manages the University’s dining services.

Sodexo General Manager, Yolanda Brent, realized that food trends were evolving and that wellness initiatives were becoming the focus of guests eating at Dillard’s dining facilities. “Introducing healthy, mindful options in our daily operations became critical,” says Brent. “So, working with Chef Dennis to develop weekly mindful menus and strategies has been an amazing experience.”

Not only did Sodexo have the foresight to bring Chef Dennis to Dillard, the company has also invested heavily in researching and developing a greater catalog of plant-based options for students across the country. The company’s commitment to health and wellness has even influenced the team responsible for rolling out the initiatives. The dining staff at Dillard made annual commitments to be healthier versions of themselves and even hosted a YOGA event during finals. “I have always challenged myself to lead by example, and in this case that meant eating healthier and making exercise a part of my daily regimen,” says General Manager, Yolanda Brent (Dillard University Alumni ’03). “Since Chef Dennis has joined our team, I have lost 30 lbs. Having a stellar campus dietitian, passionate chef, and Sodexo's mindful program helps me cultivate a culture of healthy living on our campus.”

Chef Dennis is anxious to continue improving the dining experience at Dillard University. Based on student reaction, however, he’s already done more than most ever anticipated. Chef Dennis rates his performance strictly on what the students say. He vividly remembers his proudest moment when a Dillard senior said, “This is my senior year, and I will definitely miss this food!” Hearing such words gets Chef Dennis fired up to cook—plants, that is.

What is good food? The word “good” may refer to the quality of ingredients or the skill to which they’re prepared. For Chef Dennis, however, the word good must include the impact food has on the body. His passion for cooking “good food” has opened doors for him to prepare food for several U.S. Presidents and even Oprah Winfrey, but nothing compares to the challenge of helping young coeds put down the pizza and pick up some kale. Even so, Chef Dennis is having tremendous success and the students at Dillard University are fully embracing the changes he’s brought to the campus. The students at Dillard have come to trust Chef Dennis with what goes in their bodies because he constantly shows that he cares. Dillard University’s dining hall is no longer simply a social hub. Chef Dennis is helping to transform it to a plant-based laboratory of goodness.
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