Next-Gen Leaders: Matthew Zatirka

Chef de Cuisine, Residential       
The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Educational background: Associate degree in Culinary Arts, Schoolcraft College; Bachelor’s degree
Years in foodservice: 14
Age: 29

Matthew-Zatirka U-of-MichMatthew ZatirkaFE&S: Tell us about your industry experience.

MZ: I worked previously in contract foodservice in many convention centers nationally.

FE&S: What attracted you to the foodservice industry in general, and to the campus dining segment in particular?

MZ: I always knew I wanted to work in hospitality, maybe as a hotel GM, but from my first job I have always worked in kitchens. As time passed and experiences grew, I simply couldn’t imagine working anywhere but in a kitchen.

I made the move to campus dining for two reasons: First, I wanted to be a part of Michigan’s culture of excellence, on the forefront of industry sustainability initiatives. Second, work/life balance is a priority here. As a chef, you’ll never see your family more than if you’re working for a university. My wife and I just welcomed our first child, and it’s really comforting to know that my daughter will see me every day, and I’ll be there for the important holidays.

FE&S: What’s the best career advice you have been given?

MZ: Take time to breathe. Make sure your decisions and reactions toward your team are measured and thoughtful. As pertaining specifically to the university, I often remind myself what our executive chef Frank Turchan, CEC, explained to me: “You’re driving a cruise ship, not a speed boat. Be patient and remember the university has been here for 200 years. You’re not going to finish all of your projects in a day.”

FE&S: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned about working in this segment?

MZ: Really the sky is the limit with your creativity. M Dining affords me the freedom to try anything if it will better serve our students. I realize now that I have a lot more opportunity to have fun with menus and events than I ever did in a contracted catering environment.

FE&S: What trends and future directions in campus dining are most exciting to you?

MZ: I love that the guests appreciate varieties of healthful and adventurous foods from around the world. At Michigan, we serve composed, plated entrees in all of our stations. Every day is exciting and new. The misconception that we have long tray lines of steamtable wells and big scoops is fading, and chefs from across the industry are catching on to the fact that you can do “your food” on campus and get more satisfaction from immediate feedback from our residents.

FE&S: Where do you see the biggest need for change or improvement?

MZ: I think we can expand the work we’re doing to tell our sustainability story. M|Dining is already humming with great systems set up for single-stream recycling, composting and working with local farmers and fisheries. We have a unique opportunity to immerse students in this culture for a few years. If we share and educate, these initiatives will become the norm for them. Then graduates will demand the same out of the rest of the world wherever they end up.

FE&S: Describe the biggest challenge you have overcome.

MZ: The biggest challenge is keeping a large staff motivated and engaged all year round. I think Michigan chefs keep it fresh with expansive menus, special events and even an ACF-sanctioned culinary training program that is run completely internally with all of the talent we have here.

FE&S: What are you most proud of?

MZ: Meeting with parents of incoming freshman with serious food allergies and seeing the relief on their faces when they understand how seriously we take the safety and wellness of their children. Michigan has made training and systems around food safety with allergens our first priority, and I take a ton of pride in knowing we make food and nutrition easy for these students. They have enough to worry about and by taking that fear and stress off of their plates, they are surely freed up to concentrate and excel in class and on campus.

FE&S: Complete the sentence as it relates to your campus dining program: “I really wish we could …”

MZ: … buy 100 percent locally! Though that can be tough in Michigan in the winter, everyone here is charging toward that goal regardless. It’s really a pleasure to work with our state’s awesome products, and you can truly taste the difference.

FE&S: What keeps you in this industry?

MZ: I love campus foodservice because there are so many resources here to support you, both physically as well as human capital. Additionally, there are not many jobs where the executive chef gets to meet with eight other executive chefs every week to bounce ideas off of and push each other to excel. That environment, coupled with the work-life balance that can be achieved … I can’t imagine a better place to be a chef. GO BLUE!