New Food Service, New Chef Move Campus Dining to Next Level
Anderson University wants students, faculty, staff and guests experiencing its campus dining options to feel they are in a fine restaurant, not a cafeteria. Chef Mike Ballas and the staff of AVI Foodsystems came to the university this past January to ensure they get just that.
AVI Foodsystems operates the AU Culinary Center in the G. Ross Anderson Jr. Student Center, with food options ranging from homestyle to international, stone-fired pizza, burgers, salads and more. Upstairs in the Student Center is Chronicles Café, offering hand-crafted coffee and espresso beverages, bottled beverages, smoothies and baked goods which include authentic New York bagels; also a variety of sandwiches, salads and sides. Also in the Student Center is Chick-fil-A, offering everyone’s favorite sandwich and other popular menu items. In the Thrift Library, Books & Beans offers coffee beverages, including espresso and gourmet coffee; also teas, smoothies, a large selection of pastries; sandwiches; and hearty bowl-based meals.
Chef Ballas has been with AVI for more than 15 years and has worked at several fine dining restaurants and healthcare facilities, and gatherings of up to 3,000 people. During his time with AVI, he has gone from Chef De Cuisine to Executive Chef and Director of Sustainability and Local Purchasing. Chef Ballas prides himself in doing fine catering events on campus and also providing excellent cuisine in the Culinary Center.
In fact, he has a passion for providing great food and dining experiences. Ballas notes that his passion comes from members of his family who were considered prize cooks and restaurateurs.
“I’m Greek, so food’s a big part of our life, part of our culture,” he said. “From my parents, from my mom, it just transcended to me the love of cooking and the appreciation for quality and good food.”
“My philosophy is that we want to bring a restaurant dining experience to the students. Right now we’re building a philosophy and ideology here where everything’s from scratch, everything’s freshly cooked,” Chef Ballas said, adding that he wants to move towards providing more locally sourced foods.
This fall, people are noticing changes that are making all that's good about the AU Culinary Center even better.
“Our clarity station is moving; it was up by our fusion station, and that is coming down toward our homestyle, that’s going to be almost a cook-to-order station. That will be fresh vegetables and proteins,” said Ballas. “You write down what you want and it will be stir fried, cooked right in front of them. This is experimental… we’re going to see how it goes. Same on the grill side, we’re adding a pickling station and we’re going to expand our condiment station for all barbecue sauces and condiments that go with the grill side.”
Chef Ballas adds that the Mongolian Grill, popular with students in the spring, is back this fall, along with a burrito bowl custom make burritos can be made with a variety of proteins and toppings. Another one of Chef Ballas’ specialties is anything off the smoker. He says, “Not too many schools offer all the smoked meats. In the fall we’ll be doing all of our own lunch meats.”
Roots Station offers vegan and vegetarian menu options, including several plant-based, meat-free entrees, fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, specialty salads and a variety of hummuses. For anybody with food allergies, Clarity Station offers a worry-free choices of food favorites with personalized service.
“You go to a restaurant, you pay good money, you expect the food to be good quality and this is my approach to all staff members. Each station, each burger, each chicken sandwich, is to the best of our ability. It’s a restaurant, the students are paying money, so let’s treat it that way. The cafeteria, the dining hall, that’s old news, I don’t want to hear about that. That’s the philosophy we bring here,” Chef Ballas said.
During summer, AVI kicked into high gear preparing for Palmetto Boys State, Base Camp Orientation, summer sports camps, retreats and other activities.
“The quality of food doesn’t change. It’s just the planning and organization. AVI brought people in from Ohio and Pennsylvania. I have 10 extra chefs here to help me for the month, to help with the summer camps, so it’s well planned,” Chef Ballas said, adding that the Culinary Center can be reconfigured to accommodate more people at one time.
“But on the food quality side, nothing has changed, everything’s still from scratch. We made marinara sauce from scratch, pizza sauce from scratch, barbecue sauce from scratch. We’re getting geared up and ready for them to come,” Chef Ballas said.
Chef Ballas has a degree in culinary arts from Akron University in Ohio.
Also serving on staff at Anderson is Resident Director Dave Uram, who trained at a culinary school in Pittsburgh, Pa. and has worked with several award winning restaurant groups. He has been with AVI for four-and-a-half years.