Wesleyan University reported an enrollment of 3,224 students in 2014, a total of 3,224 mouths for the university’s dining services’ production and purchasing manager, Chef Ernie Arroyo, to feed for a year.
One might assume he does it well, as Arroyo was voted the Chef of the Year for 2014 by his peers in the Connecticut Chefs Association.
The Connecticut Chefs Association, a state chapter of the American Culinary Federation, votes for the annual award, considering who among them does the most for culinary arts both in and out of the kitchen, Arroyo said.
“It’s not really based on your cooking skills and your ability, but more or less based on what you give back to the association and the American Culinary Federation and activities you do on your own time,” he said.
Arroyo attended Johnson & Wales University at Denver, where he earned his associate’s degree in advanced culinary arts and an associate’s degree at Tunxis Community College in Farmington.
According to Arroyo, that includes an involvement in Foodshare, a food bank system for Hartford and Tolland Counties, supervising interns from technical high schools and coordinating the catering for major university events.
One of Arroyo’s greatest joys, he said, is providing high school interns with hands-on training.
“Every single one of the students I’ve brought in to intern here at the university has gone on the be successful,” he said.
“They’ve gone on to culinary colleges and to work in some pretty prestigious places. One of the kids I mentored here is currently at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C.”
Arroyo said he also stays late in the kitchen on occasion for the Foodshare program, packaging food with students to distribute to local food banks.
Currently, the chef’s mind is consumed with preparing for Wesleyan’s commencement and reunion ceremonies in addition to his usual duties.
His proudest professional achievement before these accolades was earning the Philip A. Connelly Award while enlisted in the National Guard and stationed in Windsor Locks in 2001.
“A lot of my service time was in military kitchens,” Arroyo said.
Twenty-four of his 27-year culinary career was spent in the military.
Arroyo said he has collaborated with students to keep costs down and to protect the environment by reducing waste in his time at the university.
“One of the things I had to navigate for the students is to get rid of bottled water,” he said.
“The plastic is not good for the environment.”
Arroyo said sometimes students will scrape waste off plates in the dish return to weigh the amount of waste Wesleyan produces in order to measure the impact. A sign outside the university’s dining hall says 40 percent of all edible food served at the university is ultimately wasted.
“We got rid of trays for that reason. They were loading up the trays with food, so not only were our costs out of control, but they were throwing a lot of it away,” Arroyo said.
According to Arroyo, the changes have made students more conscientious of how much they serve themselves and how much waste they produce.
Chef Nicholas Follacchio, who won Chef of the Year in the ‘70s before moving locally, said he does not believe anyone has won the award in Middlesex County before, especially not recently.
“He has to be knowledgable about food cost and portion control,” Follacchio said of Arroyo.
Besides weekly menus, the Usdan website offers recipes like very zucchini spice bread; spring frittata with asparagus, leeks and chèvre; and Jamaican curried vegetable hand pies with cashew sour cream.
For information on the Usdan Cafe, 45 Wyllys St., see http://bit.ly/1F2GLtR. Hours are weekdays, 9 .m. to 2 a.m., weekends, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. The cafe, which features an a la carte menu, is open to the public.