A few years ago, Roger Williams University received an unusual distinction: According to the website BestColleges.com, RWU had one of the best dining halls in the country. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t; Thrillist.com listed RWU’s dining hall as one of the 14 best in the United States, beating out more than 4,000 competitors. And while “Best College Food in Rhode Island” might seem like a humbler title, this last one came from USA Today.
“We want to offer them a rich palate of choices,” says Dr. John King, Vice President of Student Life at RWU. “We want to give them the opportunity to experiment with foods from around the country, locally sourced food, fish they may not have encountered before.”
Eighty percent of students enroll in some kind of meal plan, even if they’re not required to, but does John eat on campus, too? “Every chance I get,” he says.
Much of the credit goes to Bon Appetit, a California-based management company that specializes in college campuses. Bon Appetit is known for local sourcing and environmental responsibility, as well as sensitivity to individual dietary needs. But RWU is deeply invested in its own food services; the line staff consists of RWU employees, and their head chef is a Bristol native, Jon Cambra, who is deeply knowledgeable about Rhode Island growers.
“I’m fortunate that I’m a Rhode Island resident,” says Jon, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute. Jon says he owes much of his attitude and connections to Casey Riley, former chef at the Castle Hill Inn in Newport. “I latched onto his ideals right away. There are three or four farmers that Chef Casey already had in his pocket, if you will. It was just really cool to meet these farmers on a regular basis. I’m saying to myself, ‘This is what I want to do. I believe in what they’re doing.’”
RWU has a close relationship with Farm Fresh RI, and the kitchen receives regular deliveries from regional farms through the Market Mobile program. “We can buy beans from Maine, we can buy cheese from Connecticut,” Jon says. “Not everything we do here is local. But as Market Mobile expanded, our relationships expanded.”
The menu showcases seasonal favorites and New England delicacies, such as scup, monkfish, and swordfish, as well as locally processed fruits and tomato puree. Potatoes are grown on Lacerda’s Farm in Portsmouth, and all the French fries are hand-cut. The main dining hall is bright and spotless, and signs identify the origins of different ingredients.
Jon is humble about their achievements, and he gushes about his RWU kitchen staff. He even appreciates the students. “Our students come to see us more than their professors,” he says. “They’re with us three times a day, if they’re on a full meal plan. Maybe even more – they might come in for a snack in the middle of the day.”