Dinner, (lunch, breakfast and snacks) is served
By Neale McDevitt
Napoleon Bonaparte famously said “an army marches on its stomach.” Although hardly an army, the 40,000 students, staff and faculty that populate McGill appreciate a good meal just as much as the Little General’s overtaxed troops.
Mathieu Laperle is the man in charge of keeping hungry McGillians happy. As Director of McGill’s Food and Dining Services (MFDS), he oversees the 30 food locations on both campuses. Recently this quintessential “foodie” took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with the McGill Reporter and talk all things culinary – be it improving campus eateries to pleasing the new generation of diners.
What is the mandate of MFDS?
Our mission is to offer pleasant and memorable dining experiences to the McGill community, through distinct food destinations that capture the culinary creativity and essence of Montreal. We are committed to providing the highest quality of customer service, promoting wellness and nutritional education, ensuring social responsibility, applying efficient policies and transmitting our passion for food, people and excellence.
How do you see your role here?
We are here to support the academic side of McGill. Nobody will choose to come here because the University has beautiful dining halls. But we are a vital part of the overall experience.
How is the MFDS structured?
McGill is a mixed model. We manage some locations at the University and we have tenants. We are working in partnership with the other groups around us such as student groups like PGSS and SSMU. SSMU doesn’t manage any food office, but inside the University Centre there are tenants. If they need assistance, we’re here to help them.
What are the MFDS’ goals?
We want to see an increase in numbers of people dining on campus, no matter where they dine. If people eat at the University Centre tenants, that’s great. If they eat at one of our locations, that’s also great. We want to keep people on campus.
So how do you get people to eat on campus?
Montreal is a food city, so I would like to provide the same experience people have dining in Montreal – but on campus. We have a wonderful market – 40,000 people with students, staff and faculty. There is a huge potential. Instead of watching people spend their money on Ste Catherine St., we want to provide that same service on campus – even if it’s just buying a coffee and a muffin.
What are your recent initiatives?
We are creating new activities for the students. For example, we have organized culinary workshops and cooking classes for students to teach them how to cook. We are also working with the McGill Food Project to look into local food sourcing because we want to provide more local food at locations managed by us. We are also getting our providers to do the same thing.
How closely do you work with tenants and providers?
We are changing the relationship between MFDS and our providers. I don’t want to have a supplier – I want to have a partner. We need our tenants on campus and our main food provider to work with us so we can share our expertise. For example, our new Executive Chef, Oliver de Volpi, will be more involved with the menus of the main food provider.
Why is this partnership vital?
In working with all our providers, we’re able to provide diversity and I think we can fill just about every niche on campus. If someone is willing to pay $4 for a latté that’s great, the service is already available here. But at the same time, cheaper coffee is also available here on campus for people who are looking for that. We need to find the balance.
How do you keep abreast of what people want?
This year we launched our first annual survey. We want to find out what people think about food at McGill even locations that aren’t managed by us.
Why is this important?
Food is based on perception. Your needs and expectations are different than mine. Many people come from across Quebec and their eating habits are different here than compared to Ottawa or Toronto. We need to better understand people’s expectations so that we can provide them with the best service.
How has the food industry changed in recent years?
In the past, going to a restaurant was something special, often to celebrate an occasion like a birthday or an anniversary. It’s not the case with the new generation. Restaurants are part of their everyday life and their expectations are very high. It used to be OK to provide mashed potatoes with every meal, but not any more. People are more refined when it comes to food so the demands on us are to provide food that is of better and better quality.
Tell us about the new dining hall at Royal Victoria College (RVC).
It was a long and complicated project because it was RVC’s first renovation in 45 years. We just completed it and, I have to say, it is now the nicest location on campus. Beautiful. Gorgeous. But people don’t know that it is open to everyone at McGill – as are all our dining halls. It’s part of our new philosophy to have more students, staff and faculty at our locations.
Any new projects in the works?
We started discussions with people from the Library to see what we can do [with the cafeteria in the McLennan Library building]. The service is very small and it is not in keeping with the beauty and efficiency of the library.
What is happening with Macdonald Campus’s Centennial Centre?
Currently there are two food locations at Mac. Not that long ago, we learned that the Centennial Centre will become a lab for students. We decided to create a committee at Mac to analyze and determine what we can do in terms of food services for students in short term and long term.
How did you get involved in the food industry?
By accident [laughing]. I was young and I didn’t know what to do. A friend told me about cooking school but I didn’t want to be a chef. But he told me they also had a management side and that appealed to me.
What is the appeal of food?
Food is special. Sitting at a table with friends, eating a good meal and sharing a nice bottle of wine – it is a wonderful thing. It is a great way to learn about people. I’ve always loved meeting our clientele.
How does the North American attitude toward food differ from Europeans?
As a maître d’ in Europe, I was held in a similar regard as a doctor or a lawyer because over there food is viewed much differently. Especially in France, where cooking is a huge part of people’s lives and children are taught how to select fruit at grocery stores based on its smell.
Are you a good cook?
I enjoy cooking. It’s nice when you have time to prepare something really good – maybe inspired by a nice bottle of wine.
Any favorite meals?
I like making soups to go along with a good bread, cheese and glass of wine.
Do you have a favorite place to eat on campus?
RVC, of course [laughing].