News feature

MIT chef talks food, family, and feeding students

Chef Brian Dagnall shares his passion for fresh, simple, ethnic food – and tips for students cooking

Brian Dagnall is the Director of Culinary Operations for MIT Dining. He has worked with Bon Appetit for 16 years. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

The Tech: How did you start cultivating your love of food?

Dagnall: I grew up in kind of a weird family; my grandmother was straight from Italy. My father’s side of the family was England-Scotland area so weekend dinners – suppers, as we called it – were pretty extravagant. I worked a lot with my grandmother in the kitchen at a young age and it catapulted after that into a passion for food. I took a liking to those big dinners and how everyone was always happy and healthy; brought everybody together.

The Tech: Does that kind of family influence still come up in your cooking?

Dagnall: Not as much, actually. I have a really deep passion for ethnic food — not Americanized ethnic food, like traditional ethnic food. So that’s probably where my passion lies now as a chef, is more or less taking a culture and manipulating the food and making it true. I’ve had the luxury of studying with some great chefs, Indian chefs, Korean chefs. I’m very passionate about food being simple and how it’s supposed to be.

The Tech: Do you have a favorite dish?

Dagnall: No, not really. I’m a New Englander, so I love chowder. But as far as a favorite dish, I’m just very passionate about Indian and Asian food in general. So, no, I couldn’t say I’m passionate about one particular dish, if I’m being honest.

The Tech: Speaking of those chefs that you’ve worked with, are there any chefs in particular that you look up to, and why?

Dagnall: I went to a vocational high school, so I studied under a master chef named Paul Amaral, who actually trained Emeril Lagasse, a big television chef. At a young age I learned a lot from him – how to break fish down, just anything in general. He passed away years ago, but he was a huge factor in why I’ve been so successful in my career. So to this day I still look up to him.

The Tech: What were you doing before getting into higher education dining?

Dagnall: I started out in the restaurant business, traveled up and down the eastern seaboard. I did some training in Napa Valley, in the Culinary Institute of America. I spent a lot of time down South. I did a lot of high volume fine dining restaurants in New Orleans. When I was 30 I decided that the restaurant life was not for me; I wanted to have kids and just settle down. I was online one day and I saw an ad for Bon Appetit management company and I just really liked how they did fresh food, dealing with local farmers, so I went, “Oh, let me give this a shot,” and the rest is history.

The Tech: What does a typical day look like for you?

Dagnall: I live in Watertown, so I hop the bus every morning, around 4:30. I always start at Maseeh because it’s three meals a day here. I check in with the morning staff, make sure all the orders are coming in, all the products properly stored. I’ll probably do anywhere from 7.2 to 9 miles walking around this side of campus, checking in on food quality and sanitation issues, and dealing with staff and catering events.

The Tech: What are some of the major challenges you have to face and how do you deal with those challenges?

Dagnall: The major challenge is to do better than your last meal. If you’re not on top of things and keeping the menu rotation fresh, students will get tired of it. So we try to change everything up. We write all our menus based on seasonality and we keep the menus fresh and current. We try to mix in a lot of ethnic foods, just keeping it fresh and simple basically.

The Tech: What are some of the things you’ve learned throughout your career in higher education dining?

Dagnall: I’ve matured a lot in this business in dealing with clients. In the restaurant world you never dealt with clients, just customers. Now I’m dealing with deans, presidents, housemasters, professors, students, so the communication piece is huge. I need to be on top of things and know what I’m talking about.

The Tech: What’s your favorite part about your job?

Dagnall: I love food, so everyday I wake up, I roll out of bed, and I’m doing what I love. There’s weeks that I’m tired, obviously, and some weeks that I’m taxed: commencement, beginning of the school year. But, I love what I do and I can’t really see myself doing anything else.

The Tech: From your time working here do you have a favorite memory?

Dagnall: I like to see students happy. There’s a student that’s from the South. I remember putting out crawfish one day and he was just blown away that while he was in Massachusetts he would see a typical Southern dish. That all rolls back to staying fresh and staying current.

The Tech: How do you ensure a fresh, safe food supply, especially when there are food poisoning outbreaks?

Dagnall: We have strict guidelines in place for who we can order from, and local farmers go through stringent applications. About 20 percent of our purchases are local. Food poisoning, haven’t really had to deal with that here. In the 16 years that I’ve been around, there’s been scares. I’m a certified proctor and instructor for ServSafe®, so I know the proper protocol for food poisoning – what to ask and what to rule out things that are said. After people eat, the first thing they think is food poisoning from what they ate, but the intoxication time is anything from 6 to 8 hours, so if you ate something in the dining hall, and 30 minutes later felt sick it’s not really from the dining hall. It could be something you ate prior to that. So it’s just being educated on that stuff.

The Tech: What do you do with the food at the end of the day that’s not eaten?

Dagnall: We freeze in cubes and work with Food for Free, which is in Cambridge, and package these meals and give them to the homeless. We try to compost any student food waste, which is pretty huge on this campus. When you look at food waste in general, the majority of it comes from students taking too much and then just dumping it. We try to compost all that food as well.

I’m very passionate about the homeless and the needy families and anyone who doesn’t have the means to eat a healthy meal. A lot of children in the US are starving and I think we overlook that and whatever I can do to help other people, we try to do it here.

The Tech: What are the systems for student feedback? How often do you get student feedback? How do you respond to student feedback?

Dagnall: There’s two ways actually. All the houses have a comment card board. The biggest comment cards we get on this campus is cereal varieties. We try to accomodate everybody. There’s also an online portal where you can make a submission. It actually goes to my email instantly. We’ll respond right away. We tend to have a lot of suggestions from students at the beginning of the school year. A lot from parents as well.

The Tech: Right now is IAP and a lot of students are just starting to cook for themselves for the first time. Do you have any advice for students who are just starting to cook?

Dagnall: Cook something that you’re passionate about eating. Grab a cookbook and try to replicate the recipes. Food is not like baking. Baking is more like a science. You can put too much mushrooms into a pasta dish and it’s okay. Just play around. I just like to get in the kitchen and mess around and adjust and take notes. Go in the dining halls, take a look and see what we do. We try to prepare a lot of dishes that you’re going to see in the restaurant. We try to use this as a learning tool for students as well; we’re not just feeding students here.

The Tech: Do you have any advice for more experienced cooks?

Dagnall: Travel, eat out a lot. I spend a lot of time in markets. Especially if you want to learn about ethnic food, go to an Indian market, walk around. There’s ton of stuff you can see and learn about the cultures. Same thing with Asian food. I’ve spent a ton of time in Chinatown.

The Tech: What do you like doing outside of your job?

Dagnall: I’m a huge vinyl record collector. I listen to a lot of jazz music and blues and different music. I go to a lot of rock concerts. I’m 47; I guess I should probably stop at some point. I live in one of the greatest sporting cities in the US. I’m at the Garden watching the Celtics. I like watching the Red Sox. I go to restaurants, go to farms, source new ingredients for this place. I’m always road tripping on the weekends, checking out farms, seeing what farmers are growing, what we can use here. I’m also a family guy so I do a lot with my children on the weekend as well.