It’s almost guaranteed that Camp Howard affects the day of each Vanderbilt student on campus, even if they don’t realize it. As Director of Vanderbilt Campus Dining, Howard manages everything from product selection to the creation of new concepts like the 2012 Rand renovations. But as an award-winning Certified Executive Chef, he also has ample experience in the trenches of the kitchen. The Hustler sat down with Howard to learn more about Vanderbilt’s “top chef.”
Becoming the director
Howard has deep roots in the culinary world. “When I was in high school, I worked for restaurants and really liked it. I worked in the front of the house serving tables and busing tables and so forth,” Howard said. He then went on to cook in the restaurants of several different resort communities across the country.
Later, Howard received a formal culinary education from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, whose alumni include celebrity chef personalities featured on shows like “Ace of Cakes,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Top Chef.”
He then worked for a company called ClubCorp of America, serving as executive chef for 4 of the 7 years he was with the company.
“That was a great opportunity because I was able to kind of create my own style,” Howard said about the experience. “We did everything from scratch, bought everything fresh. I learned how to manage people, learned how to write budgets, learned how to run a kitchen, learned how to be a boss, learned how to discipline people, learned how to cook — do all the things that a chef does.”
In 1993, Howard decided to make a change from the “grueling hours” of the private food industry and applied for an executive chef position at the University of Tennessee. One of the main reasons he took the job became clear to him during the interview process: “College food service is more than just serving food to students,” Howard said. “You’re part of the community.”
Four years later, in 1997, Howard came to Vanderbilt, taking the job of executive chef. In that position, he helped to rewrite menus, redesign kitchens and create new dining concepts. Howard was then promoted to assistant director, associate director, interim director and ultimately his current position as director of Campus Dining. He has served as director for five years.
Having worked in Vanderbilt’s kitchens in several different capacities, Howard has a special familiarity with the campus culinary scene that goes beyond his current position. “Even though I’m the director of the department, I know our kitchens, our facilities and our recipes like the back of my hand,” he said. “It’s nice, when I go into our restaurants and visit our staff … I’ve been there, done that kind of thing.”
A day in the life
“There are no two days that are alike,” Howard said. He usually starts the morning by ensuring that Dining’s overnight operations ran smoothly. After that, he may work on creating new concepts, product selection, human resources tasks or other activities. There are also many meetings every week with different Vanderbilt staff to keep the process running well.
One surefire part of his day involves going out and experiencing Vanderbilt dining. “I try to go to at least three locations per day,” Howard said. “I walk around, talk to the staff, say hello to students, make sure things are humming along.”
“I always eat lunch on campus,” Howard said. “Very rarely would I take lunch to go, take it back to my office.” Instead, he prefers to eat on location in one of the campus dining facilities.
Another important part of Howard’s job involves watching the bottom line. “I always look at our numbers,” Howard said. “We run this like a business — we’re a self-sustaining, auxiliary of the Division of Administration. I report up to Business Services, so I have to run this thing in a fiscally responsible way.”
Serving the students
Working in the campus food industry provides a unique set of circumstances to consider. Howard emphasized that understanding the students’ needs is a critical part of creating the optimal Campus Dining department to meet those needs.
“It’s being a part of the community … understanding that we are here for the greater good of the students … we’re just one little slice of their day, but we’re such an important slice of their day, and we take it very seriously,” Howard said.
In the stressful college environment, Howard views Campus Dining’s role as helping students to temporarily escape from the frantic pace. “Food makes people happy,” he said.
The best part of the job for Howard is getting to interact with students and staff on campus.
“I like to impart enthusiasm and motivate the folks that work in our department, and seeing students enjoying our services, I think it’s great,” Howard said. “Walking through Rand or the Commons, when I see students eating and laughing and having a good time, I’ll ask them if they’re enjoying their meal and they say ‘Yes’ and I just say ‘Great. We’re doing our job.’”