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Stanford Report, October 9, 2002

Taking the heat and staying in the kitchen

Student, staff satisfaction main ingredients of dining director's reputation


When Nadeem Siddiqui, new executive director of Dining Services, considers the high points of a two-decades-long career in food service, he includes the time a Cornell University student approached him off campus to tell him the lasagna served in the dining halls wasn't very good. Except the student didn't say it nearly that politely.

Nadeem Siddiqui, executive director of Dining Services, oversees residential dining as well as retail operations, including the newly launched [email protected] 160. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Siddiqui was pleased. First, because the student recognized him, said Siddiqui, who came here in May from Cornell, where he was director of dining and retail services. And second, because the student felt comfortable telling him what he thought. When Siddiqui re-tasted the lasagna, he agreed that it could be better. "We changed the recipe," he said.

Although the new executive director has an office in the Dining Services complex on Pampas Lane, he doesn't plan on spending a lot of time there, he said. He likes to be in the kitchen with the chefs and cooks or out mingling with students and staff as they dine. "It gives me an idea of what kind of experience they're having."

Siddiqui, famous at Cornell for going into student-run kitchens to assist with the cooking, already has an engagement here as guest chef on his calendar. Later this month, he'll go to the Chi Theta Chi house to make dal, a spicy Indian dish he calls his only culinary claim to fame. He and students will "chop and cut and mix together," he said.

A reputation for being responsive to students was just one of the things that made him the ideal candidate for the top job at Dining Services, said Shirley Everett, associate vice provost for residential and dining enterprises. He's also known as an innovative leader who maintains open communication with staff as well as students, she said.

"When he'd been here three months, it was like he'd been here three years," said Jeanette Hayden, training and education manager at Dining Services. Partly because he moves fast, she said, but also because of shared values. Along with the best food possible, "we want to create a really wonderful working environment for employees," she said.

Siddiqui began working in food service as an undergraduate student at Moorhead State University in Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor's degree in hotel, motel and restaurant management. Siddiqui, who was born in Pakistan, earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Punjab University in Pakistan. He worked in food service management at Grinnell College in Iowa and at the University of Chicago before becoming the director of dining services at Cornell.

At Cornell, Siddiqui increased offerings in multicultural cuisine and the amount of food purchased from local farmers. He's working here with local growers to find an economical way to purchase food from small farmers and has met with students who work at the Community Farm to discuss purchasing their produce. He and students also are conducting a pilot project to compost kitchen waste at the farm.

He wasn't looking for a job when Everett approached him about the position, but he was interested because he and Everett share a similar vision, Siddiqui said. Everett, formerly director of dining services, revolutionized Stanford's residential dining with classically trained chefs and new food preparation methods. (At a welcome-to-Stanford reception for Siddiqui last summer, Stanford chefs prepared such dishes as smoked salmon with crème fraîche on potato latkes and wild mushroom fricassee in vol-au-vent for their new boss.) Everett's ultimate emphasis, however, is on service, he said. "She has a clear vision that what we are all about is students. I strongly believe the same thing."

Siddiqui said he also was excited to be a part of Stanford's house system, where faculty, staff and students dine together. "It's so homey. I see kids in the pajamas and fuzzy slippers getting breakfast."

"Food is a great resource for bringing people together," Siddiqui said, adding that in Pakistan a meal was more than about food, it was about gathering together. "Dinners are quite long, a couple of hours. People talked about everything."

At Stanford, education doesn't end outside the dining hall, he said. "Learning never stops. It really goes beyond the classrooms."