Stanford Dining's Kahlil Wells, 'a joy to work with,' wins Amy J. Blue Award

As an assistant director of Stanford Dining, Kahlil Wells oversees an operation that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night offerings to students living in Lagunita Court, Roble Hall and other residences on the west side of campus. He is described as a dedicated manager and supportive mentor who sets high standards of excellence.

L.A. Cicero Kahlil Wells

Kahlil Wells, one of this year's winners of the Amy J. Blue Award, is assistant director of Stanford Dining, West Campus, managing day-to-day operations at Lakeside Dining.

When Kahlil Wells arrived for a job interview at Lagunita Court the summer after his freshman year in high school, he was wearing black slacks, a white button-down shirt and a Cardinal red tie – the summer uniform servers wore in its dining hall.

So was his younger brother, Jamaal, who was 13 at the time.

As they waited in the hallway between the dining hall and the kitchen, their mother, Jamila Rufaro, a residence dean in Roble Hall and a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education, went to get the manager.

With a hearty laugh, Kahlil Wells recounted what happened next:

"We were just standing there, leaning against the wall and looking around, very nervous and very shy, and a woman came along and said, 'What are you two doing standing there? Get in the dining hall! Get in your positions!' We hopped to it. We got on the line and started serving food."

By the time their mother and the manager came looking for them, the Wells brothers were taking plates from tables and pouring glasses of water for the diners – senior-level global business leaders enrolled in the Stanford Executive Program.

While Jamaal was too young for the job, Kahlil, then 15, was hired on the spot.

That was more than 20 years ago.

"They called us 'hashers' back then," Wells said. "We were serving meals to executives, so we learned fine dining service – serving from the left, removing from the right. We had to memorize the night's menu and recite the offerings. We took orders and served drinks. It was a lot of fun."

Wells is now assistant director for Stanford Dining, West Campus. He is one of this year's winners of the Amy J. Blue Award, which honors staff members who are exceptionally dedicated, supportive of colleagues and passionate about their work.

The other two winners are Priscilla J. Fiden, assistant dean of administrative operations in the Graduate School of Education, and Leslie Winick, director of alumni and student class outreach at the Stanford Alumni Association.

President John Hennessy will present the Amy J. Blue awards at a May 13 ceremony and reception, which will take place at 4 p.m. in the Koret-Taube Conference Center at the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Building, located at 366 Galvez Street.

Started as summer job

Wells worked summers at Stanford through high school and college. When the Stanford Graduate School of Business moved the Stanford Executive Program into Schwab Residential Center, Wells became its student manager.

After earning a bachelor's degree in economics from California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, in 2003, Wells became a supervisor in Tresidder Memorial Union, where he oversaw Union Square, the main food court and dining room.

In 2007, he became hospitality manager at Lakeside Dining, which serves the 600 students living in Lagunita Court and Roble Hall, and provides meals to 180 students living in three independent residences in Governor's Corner.

Lakeside Dining also hosts Late Night @ Lakeside, which is open from 9:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and attracts students from all over campus.

"I had come full circle back to Lagunita where I started," Wells said with a laugh, during a recent interview in his office in Lakeside Dining.

Over the last eight years, he has risen through the ranks in Stanford Dining, which is a division of Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE). He became general manager of Lakeside Dining, then senior general manager. Earlier this year, R&DE promoted him to assistant director of Stanford Dining, West Campus.

In that role, he manages day-to-day operations at Lakeside Dining, where he directly supervises two general managers, three executive chefs and two supervisors. They, in turn, oversee 121 food service staff, including unionized and casual employees.

Wells attends the weekly meeting of the R&DE Business Optimization Committee, which makes strategic decisions on a variety of issues, including purchasing antibiotic-free chicken, Alaskan salmon and grass-fed Australian beef.

"We're now importing Australian beef and, believe it or not, there are price advantages and sustainability advantages to that," Wells said. "Shipping beef by boat creates less pollution than shipping it by truck. It's also cheaper. In addition, the cows, which drink a lot of water, aren't drinking water in California, which recently imposed mandatory water restrictions as a result of the drought."

Wells represents Stanford Dining on R&DE's Information Technology Advisory Committee and sits on its Capital Planning Committee. In addition, he works with Stanford Conferences to help manage the transition to summer dining.

Wells said Lakeside Dining supports the community-building aspect of student life by offering special menus on holidays and by supplying food for barbecues, dorm programs and faculty-student dinners. Every year, Lakeside Dining throws a big Mardi Gras party with the resident fellows in Ujamaa, a theme house in Lagunita Court that explores black culture and heritage.

Wells enjoys interacting with students – not just providing delicious, healthy food, but also helping them build relationships that will last a lifetime.

"To play a part in the lives of these exceptional students, no matter how small, is awesome for me," he said.

"You know that you've created a memorable place when students come back after they've graduated to relive their memories and the great times they had. For us, it's all about facilitating that vibe and making sure the dining hall is comfortable, fun and feels like home."

Service, dedication and joy in life

As resident fellows in West Lagunita, Nancy and Jack Kollmann have worked with Wells and his staff to set up food service for events, including dinners in their apartment for small groups of students and faculty, coffee and cake for lounge talks, and a sideboard of snacks for parents on Parents' Weekend.

In a letter nominating Wells for the award, Nancy Kollmann, who is a professor of history at Stanford, wrote: "Kahlil always gets personally involved in the planning, has great ideas for the menu based on years of experience in the trade, and often drops in to make sure his staff set it up right. He's always cheerful and energetic, making it a joy to work with him."

Kollmann said she and her husband, a lecturer at Stanford's Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, have seen Wells "in action" at Lakeside Dining, working with his staff of managers, chefs and servers.

"It's clear that they like and respect him," she wrote. "He treats everyone with the same friendliness and respect. It's also clear that he maintains a very professional organization, asks a lot of his staff and supports them as they carry it off. The food is great at Lakeside, the service is great, and the atmosphere is friendly and orderly. Even though they serve hundreds of meals in a night, it has a small-scale feel."

Kollmann said Wells is very responsive to requests from students and resident fellows. When students asked for fresh or frozen fruit for the "make your own fruit smoothie bar," rather than canned fruit, he made the change.

"When a fellow Resident Fellow asked him to provide more Asian food for international students, a 'pho bar' appeared on Wednesday nights," Kollmann wrote. "We had a student with multiple allergic sensitivities a few years ago, and Kahlil worked closely with her to make sure that everything was labeled in a way that was safe for her, and that every day there were things on the menu she could eat."

She said Wells "exemplifies precisely the standard of service, dedication to Stanford and its community, and joy in life that Amy J. Blue is remembered for."

Jan Barker-Alexander, a resident fellow in Ujamaa, said Wells is "solution-oriented," adding that no problem is too small or too big for his attention.

"He is the model for how you treat colleagues," wrote Barker-Alexander, who also is an associate dean and director of the Black Community Services Center.

"I watched him be promoted three times, and he remained the same person," she wrote. "He creates an environment for growth and learning for his staff. He doesn't need fanfare or recognition. He takes pleasure in supporting others and sets a good example for others to follow."

Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining, has known Wells since he was a student manager at the Schwab Residential Center.

"He cares deeply about students and Stanford," Montell wrote in a letter nominating Wells for the award. "He always makes himself available for students' and customers' last-minute requests. There is no doubt that he is an ambassador for R&DE Stanford Dining as he tirelessly promotes our culture of excellence and represents the best of what we stand for. He is also a wonderful mentor and coach to his staff. Kahlil truly represents the best of Stanford."