By Lisa Kilmer
Shenandoah University has a new catering chef.
Jason Van Benschoten started working in the kitchen at Shenandoah when he was employed by Sodexo a little over a month ago. He brings over 20 years of experience with him, from fine dining to high-end catering, even running his own catering business from 2004 – 2010. His most recent position was as a kitchen manager in healthcare services. Executive Chef Donald Hawkins said it was Van Benschoten’s training at the Culinary Institute of America that put him above the other applicants.
When asked what brought him to Shenandoah, Van Benschoten said that Sodexo provides a better schedule and he enjoys working with people on a more professional level. He said that at Shenandoah, Sodexo is unlike any other place because of the experience of the staff, with everyone working 10 or more years with Sodexo.
What Van Benschoten brings to the table is the ability to step in anywhere and work with anyone. He says that communication is key in the kitchen. Discovering how people learn and how they communicate is much different from working in a kitchen today versus when he started in the business.
Van Benschoten’s approach is his ability to adapt to everyone’s style by taking the time to listen and treating each other with respect and kindness. “Morale is a big thing,” he said. “That’s my specialty”.
When you start talking about food, Van Benschoten’s eyes light up. He says that he has had a passion for this business since he was 8 years old and can “talk food until it comes out of his ears.” Though he wants to bring some of his own techniques to the recipes at SU, he is also here to learn. “The things I add,” he said, “is if I see something and I know I can make it better, I will and that is either with technique, flavoring, or presentation.”
Recently he said he came across a menu item that struck a memory of one of the first recipes he made and one he prepared frequently at an Italian restaurant. The menu item was an Arancini Balls (Italian Rice Balls) with risotto and a fresh piece of mozzarella in it.
He said being familiar with certain recipes comes in handy in this business.
When asked what students might not know about the SU cafeteria, he said that they have a section in the kitchen for allergy-free cooking called Simple Servings that avoids all the top 10 food allergens. Simple Servings is available for all students, not just those students with food allergies. Van Benschoten has also met with a student to talk about their specific food allergies and has been working on a menu for them.
Van Benschoten has not had time to meet many students in his short time at SU but is hoping to get out of the kitchen to work in the deli or the pizza station as that is where he says the communication begins. “I am here to support the students,” he said. “To make great food.” He says that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and he doesn’t see a lot of students in the cafeteria in the mornings. He is open to suggestions on how to make that better. The one thing he has noticed since being at SU is that everyone in the kitchen really cares about students.
That is the hospitality part, he said, and what attracted him to this career. “I serve or make food, you (students) get happy and I feed off that energy,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Van Benschoten said he is hoping to bridge the gap between the kitchen and students and has been thinking about ways to make this happen, whether it be a monthly kitchen report or assembling a group of students together to form a student culinary council that could provide communication and education and lead to providing food that gives them comfort and a sense of home. Chef Jason is hoping that food can spark a memory, which can lead to stories he loves to hear.