Dishing up a culinary experience at CU-Boulder

Published: Jan. 16, 2013

Ask Kerry Paterson what’s for dinner and he’ll likely answer, “What are you in the mood for?”

As executive chef of CU-Boulder’s Housing and Dining Services, Paterson and his staff dish out more than 14,000 meals a day on campus.  His challenge is to rotate exciting and varied menus for a clientele of students that remains the same for nine months of the year.

“We try to please as many people as we can,” he said, “and we listen to their feedback. We’re constantly thinking of ways to make meals fresh and new." 

During his 13 years at CU, Paterson has planned menus, made food selections, trained staff and apprentices, and helped design new campus dining facilities. While he no longer has much time for hands-on food preparation, he’ll occasionally set paperwork aside, head into the kitchen and cook a dish or two.

Paterson strives to incorporate all the senses into the culinary experience—what he refers to as “sensory dining.”

“They can see the excitement of cooking, smell the food, even hear it before they taste it,” he said. “How we present the food has changed. When I first came here, we cooked the meal, held it in a metal warmer, and served it as needed. Now we do made-to-order cooking in smaller batches.”

Paterson grew up in the food business in his native New Zealand. His grandfather was a baker, his father a butcher, and his mother a dietician. After graduating from culinary school at Auckland Technological University, Paterson worked in numerous restaurants.  He was regional chef for Nordstrom in San Francisco and he cooked for teams of scientists in Antarctica.

When his wife wanted to return to her home state of Colorado, Paterson came to work at CU because he thought a university environment would be a welcome change.

“At CU there is a good quality of life,” he said. “And I have opportunities to try new things. It’s never boring here. I never thought I’d get to open a multi-million dollar restaurant like C4C.”

What sets CU’s dining facilities apart from other universities, says Paterson, is a concentration on organic food and a wide selection of ethnic culinary choices. Vegan, kosher, and gluten-free options are available. Food allergens—eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, gluten, and wheat—are identified in menu options. 

CU students are typically well traveled and they can tell if a cuisine is authentic or “Americanized,” according to Paterson.

“Asian and sushi are students’ comfort foods now,” he said. “But they don’t just want Asian; they want Korean, Indian, Nepalese. And we’re going beyond Tex-Mex into regional cuisine from South American countries.”

In 2010, Paterson and his culinary staff were the only university cooking team to win a national Achievement of Excellence Award by the American Culinary Federation. For six of the past eight years, they have won the National Association of College and University Food Services Regional Culinary Challenge.

 “We’re breaking the mold of a college dining facility,” said Paterson. “This isn’t your parents’ cafeteria.”