The students’ chef: Executive chef returns to Iowa roots, oversees ISU Dining

Scott Bruhn, right, executive chef for ISU Dining, plays an instrumental role in operations by leading the various chefs around campus. In the midst of catering a meal for the Board of Regents and ISU President Steven Leath, Bruhn oversees the presentation, quality and execution of special luncheons that ISU Dining hosts.

Richard Martinez

A nuclear engineering student is carefully cutting carrots. As an employee of ISU Dining, he sees a bowl of diced carrots and a handful of peels.

But when Scott Bruhn eyes the bowl, he sees food that will go toward feeding thousands of students at Iowa State.

Bruhn, a 1994 ISU graduate in hotel and restaurant management, is now the executive chef for ISU Dining. After graduating, Bruhn mostly worked as a catering chef on the East Coast while attending Johnson & Wales Culinary School.

“I’ve done catering for hotels mostly,” Bruhn said. “I also had an experience in fine dining with a French-style restaurant in Chicago.”

Originally from Davenport, Iowa, Scott had considered returning to Iowa before, but it was an opening in ISU Dining’s senior management department that finally drew him home.

“I always thought about coming back. It’s where I’m from,” Bruhn said. “Soon enough, things fell together nicely and I joined the team January of 2014.”

This is the first time that Scott is working for a catering business on the university scale, especially one that feeds close to 35,000 students.

As the executive chef, Bruhn oversees Iowa State’s catering services, retail operations, C-Stores and dining halls, meeting with each department weekly. Along with 1,800 student workers, ISU Dining employs several chefs de cuisine to oversee these units.

A chef de cuisine — like Ed Astarita, sous chef for the Knapp-Storm bakery — brings diverse skills to the team. Pastry chefs, another type of chef de cuisine, produce all of the university’s baked goods. However, they also accept orders to make wedding cakes and desserts.

Astarita mentioned working on a “3-foot tall cake of the Campanile for a special event for the university.” Included in the bakery’s portfolio are cardinal and gold cupcake displays, birthday cookie cakes and an expansive menu of fondant wedding cakes.

“I don’t think people realize there’s a lot more when it comes to feeding students in the dining centers,” Bruhn said. “There [are] a lot of moving parts, but the chefs are great guys to work with. They’re the ones in the trenches making sure things are getting done, ensuring food quality is high.”

While Bruhn’s main duties are to lead student workers, sous chefs and dining administrators, he is also called upon to cater special university events. The Board of Regents, Gov. Terry Branstad and ISU President Steven Leath have been some of Bruhn’s more well-known customers.

“Interestingly, I’ve been invited over to the Knoll a few times to cook for the president,” Bruhn said. “It’s always a pleasure to serve a meal for big university events or to the skyboxes in Jack Trice. It’s a step back from catering, so presentation and the room for experimenting is important for us.”

Because of the amount of students ISU Dining serves on a daily basis, comments, both good and bad, are bound to surface. Feedback is a large cornerstone of ISU Dining, Bruhn said, so the department uses social media outlets like Twitter to communicate with students.

When asked how to handle criticism, Bruhn responded, “We challenge ourselves to be the best college food program in the nation, so when I see pictures [on Twitter] of food that doesn’t look so good, I ask, ‘How can we make this better?’”

ISU Dining occasionally hosts special events in its dining centers and uses social media to get students to attend.

On Sept. 3, Union Drive Marketplace hosted a “Bacon Extravaganza” that featured more than 12 menu items that included bacon. The day of the extravaganza, tweets and photos flew in to ISU Dining’s Twitter from students with positive feedback from the event.

“If you’re not at Union Drive tonight, you’re missing out!” ISU Dining tweeted.

“We try to make these kind of events possible to keep things interesting for our students, and I think they really enjoy it,” Bruhn said.

But with growing student enrollment, ISU Dining has been forced to consider how it can better outfit its facilities to serve the student population.

Since Bruhn attended Iowa State in 1994, ISU Dining has added made-to-order style venues and international food choices to its dining centers, expanded retail stores and implemented a new health and nutrition program.

Bruhn said discussion of increased enrollment among administrators pointed to the implementation of a new dining center in the Friley Windows area. 

The Friley Windows project is tentatively set to begin in 2016.

“Our biggest challenge right now is experimenting to see what kind of food options we want to make available to students in that area,” Bruhn said. “Part of making that location a success is hearing from our students and listening to what their needs are. We tend to make all of our choices with the influence of the student body in mind.”

Whether it’s shuffling paperwork in his office, frantically catering an 80-person presidential meal in the Memorial Union main kitchen or training a new ISU Dining student worker, Bruhn enjoys all aspects of his job, especially working with students.

“You know, my favorite part about working here, something I never got in my other jobs, is just working for students,” Bruhn said.

The next time students grab a packaged sandwich from a C-Store, buy a scotcheroo made from scratch in the Knapp-Storms bakery or simply swipe their card to get into a dining center, they can keep in mind the family of workers, students and fine dining chefs who are hard at work behind every plated meal.