Keeping Students Fed a Tall Order for Dining Services

Frank Hurley oversees the food that powers UMass Lowell students. Image by Tory Wesnofske
Frank Hurley, executive chef for University Dining, oversees the meals that power students through the day.

By David Perry

To follow Frank Hurley through the subterranean kitchen storage area in McGauvran Hall is to trail a man whose passion is putting quality food on the university’s tables.

Hurley, the executive chef for University Dining Services, feels personally responsible for serving tasty, nutritious and fresh meals at the university dining halls. He’s a stickler for the thousands of details that go into feeding thousands of hungry people every day. 

Hurley knows everyone’s name, from the prep cooks to the man preparing made-to-order omelettes to the guys on the loading dock waiting for the produce truck to arrive. He knows that the dishwasher can clean 20,000 dishes in an hour if it has to, and that dining services goes through 15 30-gallon vats of canola oil across campus each week.

Passing through the kitchen prep area, Hurley pulls a thermometer from his white jacket and plunges it into a pile of steaming ground beef. “Perfect – 148 degrees,” he says. It’s when food is between 41 and 140 degrees that bacteria trouble can happen.

Walking behind him, it’s also impossible not to wish, for his sake, that they had dug the basement deeper. At 6’5”, wearing his chef’s toque (add 10 inches), Hurley has to remove his hat and duck to avoid overhead pipes.

Although he may be the top chef on campus, he actually spends just a fraction of his time cooking.

“Probably 20 percent of my time is actually doing that,” says the 1994 Johnson & Wales University Culinary Arts graduate. But he has grown to savor the administrative details, which he views as essential ingredients to a well-run kitchen.

Hurley, 42, manages food orders, menus and budgets while working to “accommodate every single customer that we encounter.” He works with those with food allergies, religious restrictions or gluten issues. Vegan and vegetarian options are always on the menu.

On this Thursday in September, Hurley will oversee a campuswide food operation of nearly 500 employees that will serve 6,553 meals at the three dining halls (the Inn & Conference Center, Fox Hall and McGauvran). Fox Hall alone will rack up the most sales, with 4,260 meals served.

In all, the day’s biggest selling meal will be a comfort food classic, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, sold 1,327 times. 

Ask him what’s the best-selling meal on campus, and Hurley doesn’t hesitate. 

“Chicken parm, hands-down,” he proclaims. “The students love it.”

Up at 4 a.m. every work day, Hurley leaves his wife and two young daughters in their Bedford, N.H., home and is at his desk at the Inn and Conference Center by 6, where he pores over and answers e-mails, reviews bids and begins fielding calls from various leaders of culinary teams across campus. 

At some point each morning, Hurley decides where he’ll be for the day. Usually, his location is dictated by where he is needed the most. 

On Tuesdays through Dec. 12, you can find him at the Southwick Food Court, where he’ll be concocting dishes using “fresh, global flavors” to entice diners and flex his cooking muscles. The Korean rice bowl Chicken Bibimbap , Chicken Pad Thai, Gnocchi Cauliflower Alfredo and Tandoori Chicken Salad are some of the dishes he’ll be serving up.

“We’re trying to do something new and exciting and draw more people in,” Hurley says. He is also involved with planning for future dining options across campus.

Hawk’s Nest East at University Suites is being revamped as residential dining, and Cumnock Hall on North Campus is being transformed into a food court of sorts that will feature made-to-order sandwiches, salads, soups and other items. 

Hurley discovered his love of cooking when he was 8, watching his mother cook in the family’s kitchen. Once he graduated from Johnson & Wales in 1994, he worked at a club in Connecticut, joining Aramark in 2000. He began as an executive chef at New York University, where he decided higher education would be his path. He worked at John Carroll University and Cleveland State University before heading to UML in 2014. In 2015, he earned the esteemed ProChef II certification following an intensive week of testing at the Culinary Institute of America.

The tour complete, he hovers over a laptop. Hurley notes there are 6,977 recipes in the system he draws from, including 1,507 just for vegetable dishes, from zesty three-bean vegetarian chili to red velvet whoopie pies.

Halal chicken – prepared according to Islamic laws – is used exclusively so that a variety of dietary restrictions are met. Each meal’s menu contains a standardized ingredient list to ensure consistency.

“As much as possible, the ingredients are local and sustainable,” said Hurley.

Hurley says UML Dining strives to accommodate everyone – and to teach them about food. He points to the food station called Choices, the gluten-free option in McGauvran.

Signs warn that cross-contamination is serious business. Hurley points down a long stretch to the Amore pizza station.

“The flour from the pizza dough can stay in the air for up to 48 hours,” he says. “Everything beyond the entrance – pasta, seasonings, soy sauce – is gluten-free. The staff uses a state-of-the-art handwashing system. And we’re not just training our staff about gluten and celiac disease, but educating students about allergies and dietary restrictions.”

And with that, Hurley is off again. It’s morning, and there are plenty of people to feed.