At 11:45am each weekday, Ellsworth Dining Hall erupts with the arrival of hundreds of hungry teenagers. Competing aromas foreshadow the tough choices they will face.
Some students take their place in a traditional cafeteria line for a steaming bowl of stir-fried gyudon, a Japanese comfort dish composed of thinly sliced marinated beef and onions over rice, with traditional garnishes, including tsukemono, or pickled vegetables. Others venture over to the Chef’s Whim exhibition station, where the school’s head chef plates Lake Erie walleye, turnip purée, and a foraged ramp pistou with peas, mint, and oyster mushrooms garnished with pickled rhubarb and parsnip crisps.
“We’re not a typical cafeteria,” explained Chef Eddie Mundy, director of dining services at Western Reserve Academy, a Hudson-based boarding school for students in grades 9 through 12.
On a typical school day, Eddie and his team serve between 800–1,000 meals to a student body representing a vast number of countries, cultures, and traditions. International students comprise 22% of the population. WRA’s global family includes students from across the United States, China, Dubai, Spain, Scotland, South Africa, and a host of other countries, who dine together for most of their meals. “We have a captive audience from all over the world,” Eddie said.
Since taking his post four years ago, Eddie has transformed the school’s approach to mealtime, rolling out a culinary welcome mat with global cuisine that makes students from faraway places feel more at home. He has introduced students to Moroccan lamb stew, Nepalese pork sekuwa, Mexican fry bread tacos, and American barbecued beef brisket with Texas potato salad and homemade pickles. He educates himself on cultural holidays and religious observances, in addition to keeping track of special dietary needs.
Eddie and his team take their role seriously, understanding that they’ve been entrusted with the well-being of students, whose parents might be thousands of miles away. “It’s the thing the mothers all worry about with their kids so far from home—will their child eat, and what will they eat?” he said.
Eddie sees students several times each day, year after year, and close relationships build over time. “My staff and I know the students by name, and they know we care about them,” he said. “It’s a great compliment when a student says that our food reminds them of something they eat at home.”
He brings an earnest sensitivity and the heart of a servant leader to this role that is more like a calling than a job. Faith and family are important to him. He and his wife, Maria, have a daughter, Magnolia, and have also been foster parents to 10 children. Perhaps that’s why, after cooking in other restaurants and environments Eddie, a Johnson & Wales graduate, feels so at ease here.
Outside of the school’s kitchen, he can be found conducting research at small independent eateries like Minh Anh, Kifaya’s Kitchen, Caribe Bakeshop, and Assad’s Mediterranean Cuisine. He enjoys engaging the owners and the cooks, and is undeterred by language barriers. The gyudon, Eddie explains, was inspired by dishes he’s had in Cleveland’s AsiaTown, one of his favorite neighborhoods.
“I seek out restaurants that are owned by immigrants. I eat there and I talk to the cooks about the food. I read books and I watch videos. If I’m going to call something I’m making ‘authentic,’ I am going to be obsessed with getting it right,” Eddie said.
Many of his dishes have complex flavor profiles, so he’s likely to seek out spices and other ingredients at a specialty Asian or Middle Eastern market. Eddie’s shopping list also includes locally made and grown items from Quarry Hill Orchards, New Creation Farm, Green City Growers, Brunty Farms, as well as some of his favorite stands at the West Side Market—The Pork Chop Shop and The Basketeria.
Eddie’s cooking is steeped in the influences of family. He can’t remember a time when he did not want to cook, preferring to watch cooking shows over cartoons. “I grew up fishing for Lake Erie walleye and perch, and my uncle in West Virginia taught me how to forage. My grandmother always made rhubarb pies and tarts,” he said.
In his role, Eddie could wear a shirt and tie and take a more administrative approach, but that’s just not his style. An important part of his job is connecting with his “customers,” and he’s out in front cooking at the Chef ’s Whim station several times a week.
Not every day brings a menu of vindaloo and falafel. More traditional cafeteria fare, such as grilled cheese, burgers, and chicken noodle soup, also have their place.
But everyone looks forward to the occasional Epic Mealtime Day (borrowed from the online video series of the same name), which could mean a BOMbay burrito with lamb tikka masala, housemade paneer and chutney, Kung Pao pastrami, or a deconstructed ramen fried chicken.
“I’ve earned a lot of their trust,” he said. “Once you gain trust, people will try things, even things they thought they didn’t like.”
Find inspiration for your own family menus. See what Chef Mundy is serving on the Ellsworth Dining Hall Twitter feed @FLIKISD_WRA.