Feeding the masses: Chef Matt’s comfort zone

Matt Leeland has one of the biggest dining rooms around, and he loves working the room.

As the executive chef for Parkhurst Dining, Chef Matt is responsible for feeding Heidelberg students by the hundreds every day of the week. It’s a job that keeps him hopping … working long hours … greeting students who know him by name … stopping by their tables to chat for a minute or two.

“I’m always on the run,” says Chef Matt, who typically arrives on campus around 7 a.m. and leaves between 8 and 9 p.m. “But that’s only six days a week.”

Although new to Parkhurst Dining when the company took over as Heidelberg’s food service partner last June, Chef Matt is a veteran of feeding large groups. An Ohio native, he went to culinary school in Chicago and has worked at private country clubs, Mon Ami winery, a private yacht club, a regional resort, the Cleveland Clinic Euclid campus and Bowling Green State University dining.

Chef Matt enjoys the fact that Parkhurst’s food is prepared from scratch. A lot of the produce, especially in season, comes from Riehm Market, a few miles north of Tiffin.

“I like that I have the freedom to set my own menus. The focus is always on quality,” Matt says, pointing to a 20-gallon pot of homemade beef stock boiling on the store, set to become the base for soups, sauces and gravy in the days to come. He has a collection of favorite recipes he brought with him to Heidelberg and he also draws from a database of recipes that he can customize for the students.

“If you look around, the most important thing is to be healthy and well fed,” Matt says. “A lot of people pick a college because of what they have to offer. When you give them what they ask for, it sends a better message. They’re happier.”

For sure, Chef Matt has been responsive to ‘Berg students, and they have definitely noticed.

"Parkhurst’s communication with the students is really good,” says junior Sydney Calabro. “They listen to our feedback and always try to accommodate our wishes. Chef Matt answers the feedback cards by the coffee stations."

It’s important for Chef Matt to be visible and engaged with the Heidelberg community. A quick walk through Hoernemann, and he’s routinely stopped by students who know his name and just want to chat. He thoroughly enjoys the interaction.

“It’s nice to get to know the students and to listen to them,” he says. “My whole focus is to get students interacting … to let them know this is their place, and the more feedback they give us, the better.”

He’s also engaged with the ’Berg community, offering creative HYPE Career Ready® sessions to teach students about healthy food choices or participating in cooking classes at Saurwein Health & Wellness Center for the campus community. He offers a healthy snack bar around a theme on the first and third Fridays of every month, in conjunction with Saurwein.

On the flip side, Chef Matt has appreciated the warm welcome from the Heidelberg and the commitment of his Parkhurst colleagues, many of whom have been with Heidelberg for many years.

The bottom line for the Parkhurst team is to make students feel as comfortable as possible.

“When they’re not at home with their parents, we feed them. We have a responsibility to make their first real experience away from home as comfortable as possible,” Chef Matt says.

Providing healthy, tasty comfort foods with a warm smile and a wave – it’s a win for everyone. And no one leaves Chef Matt’s dining room hungry.

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