The Man Behind Your Meal
By Mary G.
The Buffalo Seminary is famous for its delicious food served on ceramic plates with silverware. But during the pandemic, what has Chef Tom Knapp and the kitchen staff had to do to keep us safe and well-fed?
“Our day-to-day has not changed much,” said Chef Tom. Prior to Covid-19, the kitchen staff wore gloves in the kitchen and kept a very sanitary work station. Now, masks are a requirement and there is a new check-in system for vendors and other staff who enter the building.
There is also a small struggle with not knowing how many students will be in school on any given day due to Covid-19. To counteract this, Chef Tom explains that there is “good communication with SEM when it comes to population changes that are within our control but as far as the day to day, by the time the absent student email comes out, I am well into production and just base my numbers on current trends.”
Chef Tom came from an Italian family, with a greatly influential grandmother. At 14, he was hired at Rizzo’s Casa D’italia, now Banchetti’s, on French Rd. Buffalo, after filling in as a dishwasher for a friend. While there, Chef Tom worked his way through kitchen manager and first line cook to general manager.
“Since 14, I’ve been in the food business,” said Chef Tom, age 45, the head chef at SEM since September of 2019.
After more jobs in restaurants, Chef Tom began in the business industry. Through the company Aramark, he became the lead cook and shift supervisor in the General Motors Powertrain cafeteria on River Road, Tonawanda. As well as the food service director at Univera healthcare and CitiBank Buffalo.
After 20 years at Aramark, Chef Tom began at SEM, working for Personal Touch food service, in the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. Switching from the restaurant and business industry to an all girls’ school’s cafeteria allowed for fewer hours and more free weekends. Additionally, the clientele remains constant everyday, rather than having new people everyday at a restaurant – with the exception of “regulars.” On switching from the business end of the industry to a school kitchen, Chef Tom said, regardless of the setting, food has always been a constant ,and doesn’t vary much from location to location.
“The students have a very good idea of food and what the expectation is,” Chef Tom said, “and they will try different foods so it is not much different than working at a restaurant. A guest is a guest.” Chef Tom gets almost no pushback from anyone saying a particular dish cannot be served because it’s for teenage girls.
Specifically, Chef Tom served a Korean rice bowl with pickled red onions, cucumbers, and cabbage expecting not nearly as much popularity as it has received. He expected the pasta dishes, spaghetti with marinara and pasta primavera, to do better than they are. “That probably comes back to the Italian influence. I feel like everyone should love pasta and everyone should eat pasta five days a week and be fine with it,” he said.
Producing food in large quantities is easy to accomplish as long as the menu is prepared in advance and “have our mise en place (things in place) during production, most days run smoothly,” Chef Tom said.
There are 12 residential students in SEM. They are from Korea, China, Vietnam, Kenya, Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. All three of their meals are prepared by Chef Tom and his team: Brittany Murphy and Chef John Burden. They eat brunch at 11 a.m., lunch whenever they need it, and dinner at 5:30 p.m. Suyoung Kim, a residential freshman from South Korea, says her favorite dish is the Mexican food. On the other hand, Bella González, a residential freshman from just outside Mexico City, prefers the pasta. Although it was a difficult palette change she said, she eventually adapted and pasta is her favorite dish.
Interestingly, Chef Tom says the residential students tend to like rice dishes, homemade chicken fingers with a sweet chilli sauce, and basically anything with an Asian influence.
Although Chef Tom “never really got into a ton of cookbooks,” he said he enjoys watching the English Chef Gordon Ramsey and other online recorded recipes without exact measurements, “as they build the dish they’re just talking about what’s going into it,” Chef Tom said. He also likes videos where you can watch “it progress from the beginning to the end, and how perfect it is at the end.”
All residential students eat brunch at 11 a.m., lunch with the day students at 11:45 p.m. on weekdays (for weekends they can just go grab something from the kitchen), and dinner at 5:30 p.m. The brunches are eaten in their rooms, lunch and dinner are eaten six feet apart, socially distanced because of Covid, one student to each atrium table. Bella prefers the dinners to the lunches, but would change the time at which dinner is served. With sports and homework, having a mandatory dinner time so early can be challenging. She also says there is a close community with the residential students and the kitchen staff, they know eachothers names and secretly share what the meals are going to be.
Suyoung ‘24 had a much easier time adjusting to an American palette. She had lived in Kansas for another exchange program and had already grown a liking for American food. When she does get homesick, she brings instant Korean food she can easily prepare. She also feels that the dinner time is too early. Her favorite dish is Mexican food in general.
Ethnic nights usually consist of Asian-style food. For Lunar New Year, the house parents prepared Chinese and Korean food.
Chef Tom loves cooking everything and appreciates being here everyday and “appreciates the fact that the students appreciate what we do.”