Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
28 September 2022
Vita Nova has always been about quality over quantity and always will be. Even after the global pandemic ravaged the food service industry and forced businesses to close en masse, the University of Delaware’s gourmet restaurant didn’t shut down, it recalibrated.
The numbers don’t lie about how the student-run restaurant has held up. Studying in a restaurant is a large part of the hands-on experience students receive in the Hospitality Business Administration major at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. These numbers look something like this.
Dinner reservations for the entire month of September were almost full. The following months will fill up. Lunch started on September 6th and dinner on September 7th.
One of the two new executive chefs, Alison Rainis, is a hospitality and sports business management graduate of UD’s Class of 2016 and came highly recommended by previous longtime Vita Nova executive chef Joe DiGregorio, who retired in May after more than 25 years on the job. service. Another, Billy Rawstrom, is an award-winning chef who owned the restaurant for 13 years and currently runs the Maiale Food Truck. He is known as the Sausage King of Delaware. The menu, which is seasonal and changes every semester, is full of delicious new items, including signature dishes that many love.
Who is new at Vita Nova?
“Vita Nova prides itself on staying ahead of industry trends and preparing our students for success in the hospitality industry,” said Nick Waller, Restaurant Supervisor and Dining Room Manager.
After graduating from Lerner College, he received a culinary degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He worked for CulinArt, a catering company with 250 locations in businesses and schools in 18 states. His first assignment was as a chef at the Lockheed Martin location. From there, she went to Philadelphia and worked as executive chef and general manager at an out-of-town prep school for girls, where she prepared portioned meals and prepared 500 meals a day. He also taught cooking at the school.
Rainis said he already knew when he was in school at Lerner College that he wanted to return to work at Vita Nova one day, and told his supervisors as well. DiGregorio recruited him when the position opened.
“He would hate for me to say this, but I owe my career to him because he mentored me as a student and beyond,” Rainis said of DiGregorio.
“It’s really a full-circle moment,” he said. “I’m excited and I’m ready to get going and get back to Vita [Nova]. Obviously it’s scary, but I think I have a little bit of an advantage because I was here as a student. I know what it’s supposed to look like. I know what it’s supposed to feel like to be.”
This time she has her own office and supervises the classroom, checks the dishes, and supervises the kitchen and students.
“We have always been strongly involved with our alumni, who are brought back into the classroom each year to speak to students and often serve as guides/mentors. In this context, having us as a full-time faculty member makes it special,” said Srikanth Beldona, Head of Hospitality and Sports Marketing. “Alison is aware of what makes Vita Nova tick, which she demonstrated as a student and has now returned with additional exceptional skills and exposure in the industry.”
Rawstrom, who started in the restaurant last year, owned and operated Maiale Deli and Salumeria in Wilmington for 13 years. He still runs the company’s food truck after the restaurant closed. He has appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri. The Sausage King of Delaware specializes in more than 30 unique varieties of sausage and 10 types of salami. He is also a past winner of the Delaware Burger Battle.
“Our lead chef instructors [Rawstrom and Rainis] both have a solid background in classical cuisine, which is a fundamental building block of the program, and also bring with them the creativity and strong teaching experience of working in the field, which in their place is good for connecting with our students and taking them on a culinary journey. at the forefront of the world,” Waller said.
Eaters should expect temporary changes at Vita Nova. The capacity of the dining hall, which used to be about 46, will be limited to 30 at dinner this semester. The bistro, primarily used for smaller late-night gatherings that served smaller portions, is closing. Waller said the pivot was made for lower staffing levels caused by COVID-19. This is consistent with the way Vita Nova, traditionally a dining-only restaurant, created takeout menus during the pandemic to help students understand how to be creative and flexible.
“The industry, like many others, has always gone through peaks and troughs, and it’s been longer because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Beldona said. “Our Aramark Scholars program gives our students the opportunity to come back to the restaurant and help them strengthen their skills in creating and delivering memorable guest experiences.”
The pandemic affected the number of student workers. This semester, 21 people are working, which is half the number of classes before the pandemic. The flip side of this scenario is that students get more attention from professors and more restaurant experience at a time when the food service industry has revived and people are dining out and traveling for leisure. Waller called the moment a valuable lesson for students in today’s work environment. Rainis said the students are ready for the huge pushback in the industry that’s happening right now.
“Hospitality was at a low ebb,” Rainis said. “Restaurants were closed. We got hit with travel, there’s no getting around it. But now we’re recovering and now all the hospitality companies we work with, all the restaurants and hotels in the country are hiring. So if you put in the work and you have a good performance during your undergrad, there’s no question , that you can start working immediately after graduation.
Rawstrom and Rainis still teach three courses per semester. First-year students and sophomores take the Food Principals Lab, which they call breakfast. They are still learning the basics of back-of-house service. Knife skills, getting comfortable in the kitchen and cooking technique they put to the test when they cook for their peers. The lunch lab is primarily for sophomores and juniors, where they learn front of house skills, prepare food and act as chefs preparing certain foods, such as appetizers, and call in front of house orders. Juniors and seniors conquer the dinner class, which is the culmination of the program. By the time they earn their diploma and walk across the stage, students know how to manage gourmet restaurants and hotels and how to deal with stubborn chefs in busy kitchens.
“I’m more excited about the teaching element than anything else,” Rainis said. “Cooking is nice and getting your hands dirty is nice, but I like being able to show students how and what to do and when to do it. That’s probably the best part.”
Patrons of Vita Nova will see first-hand what teaching is all about when they sit down to a prix-fixe four-course meal with mouth-watering dishes. This semester’s farm-to-table menu includes a new pasta dish created by Rawstrom with garlic pork sausage and broccoli rabe. The menu also includes filet mignon with demiglace, potato terrine and vegetables; short rib with polenta cake and broccoli rabe with a red wine reduction; scallops with cauliflower rice risotto with roasted beets and chive oil; roasted duck breast with sweet potato puree and blackberry mousse with blistered green beans; and pan-roasted sea bass with potato and corn medley served with Beurre Blanc butter sauce and fried Brussels sprouts. Vita Nova also offers a vegan menu that is a play on chicken parmigiana. It’s portobello mushroom for spaghetti squash pasta, puttanesca sauce and vegan cheese.
The four-course menu also includes an appetizer trio of curry-pumpkin soup with chive cream; lamb meatball with tomato and cucumber salad with tzatziki sauce and pancetta crisp with whipped goat cheese, chopped Brussels sprouts and topped with either fig or fig jam. Finally, for dessert, the duo brings back Vita Nova, but with two new creations from Rainis. One of them is blood orange chocolate mousse with pistachio and brûlée orange. The second will be a bourbon apple tartlet with strudel and sour cream gelato.
From September to early December, when it closes for the semester, Vita Nova serves up an array of food and makes many memories. A new team awaits their creation.