Nolan Corne's interest in the varied roles of food service started at a young age, he admits. While growing up in Texas, he got his earliest exposure to that world through his church youth group by helping cook Sunday breakfast, hosting ice cream socials in the afternoon, etc., but it was his first actual job — McDonalds, at age 14 — where he truly began to grasp what all food service entails.
At Bethel College, Corne embodies that versatility in all that he does — from nutritional to financial to marketing responsibilities and more — as food service director at the college, a position he has held for the past six years. Attendees at Bethel College's Life Enrichment series have seen a small fragment of that work with Corne providing cookies and coffee regularly at the lectures, but he revealed the big picture — or rather, the full recipe — as a presenter himself on Wednesday.
Following years working his way up through the ranks in the restaurant business, Corne settled in the area (to be around family) while a corporate trainer for P.F. Chang's. Moving into management roles from there, it was one of his shortest stints with a restaurant that eventually led him to the position with Bethel College.
Corne had just completed two months of training with Ted's Montana Grill when the chain decided to shut down its midwest market (including restaurants in Wichita). In a slight "panic mode" after that news broke, a friend informed him of a bar manager position opening at Newport Grill. As Corne noted, doors open and close for a reason, and the revolving door that led him to Newport Grill also eventually brought him to Bethel College (after hiring former food service director Don McNulty, who was looking to find his replacement at Bethel, as a server at Newport).
While Corne was unaware of the transition in structure going on with food services at the college at that time — with the college moving from a two-entree model to a five-entree model with scattered services (to accommodate more students at once) — it was an opportunity he was eager to take on.
"It was a perfect fit for me," Corne said. "I took the job and I haven't looked back since."
Moving away from the hectic hours of the restaurant business to have more time with his family, Corne still has a lot on his plate in his role at Bethel College — more than just meeting the food service requirements that most readily come to mind when people think about Corne's position.
On top of flexible menu planning based on a variety of diets and culinary interests, Corne is also in charge of inventory, administrative operations (i.e. budget) and quality standards in the food service department — not to mention larger organizational tasks like renovations.
Bethel was doing some renovations when Corne first came on, and completed some over the summer as well, including the installation of some new counters and patio seating (with 40 seats initially and room to expand). Corne also routinely makes walkthroughs of the college's dining facilities and notes the needs each year. If anyone is out sick for the day, he will also pitch in where needed — like a recent stint as the college's most expensive dish washer.
"These are just a few of the hats I wear when I'm in a facility," Corne said.
Part of a larger corporation (Elior North America and Aladdin Food Services) providing client-based services to Bethel College, Corne has access to global resources to effect more efficient change — i.e. renovations — than he had the chance to do in restaurant management.
While part of a larger company, Corne tries to hold true to its motto: "small enough to care, big enough to make a difference." As such, Corne has a lot of control over what goes on in food services at Bethel College.
"They have empowered me to be a leader, be a director and not just a 'yes man,'" Corne said. "They've helped me be creative."
Finding outlets for that creativity comes from trying to treat the kitchen as a self-contained entity. It may not be feasible for kitchen staff to bread 400 chicken patties in a day, but in an effort to be a true "scratch" kitchen, Corne said staff is not just opening cans of marinara sauce as part of meal prep. Rather, cooks are dicing tomatoes, sautéing onions and adding white wine themselves — all in line with the service provider's commitment to quality, consistency and freshness.
Corne noted the staff will also find ways to repurpose leftovers to minimize food waste, like shredding grilled chicken breast for wraps and serving chicken enchiladas the following day, while the food service department also maintains a fresh herb garden next to the cafeteria with rosemary, spicy oregano, roma tomatoes and more.
Among the many hats Corne wears, one is essentially as surrogate parent. Knowing parents want their kids to have great food also motivates Corne to continue pushing the envelope in the kitchen — from making sure there are gluten-free and vegetarian options to introducing students to brand new culinary styles.
"Part of my job is to make sure they go outside their comfort zone," Corne said.
While staples like hamburgers and chicken nuggets can often be found on the menus, items like ceviche (a raw fish dish), ancient grains (i.e. quinoa, farro, etc.) and some of Corne's personal favorites — curry, pad thai and other Asian dishes —often find their way onto the rotation as well.
Managing health needs and dietary restrictions are also always at the forefront of Corne's mind in helping meet the needs of all students. While it's a lot of responsibility, these are tasks Corne is more than happy to take on as he takes care of his "family."
"For me, my family is Bethel College. My family is my Aladdin staff," Corne said. "I want to be in an environment where I feel like I'm home."