The UC Food Observer staff recently visited the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB #gauchos) to learn more about UCSB’s efforts around sustainability and the food system. As part of a larger effort, the campus has launched an innovative Food, Nutrition and Basic Skills Program. It provides students with basic cooking skills and information about nutrition. The program also teaches students the essentials of budgeting and meal planning. It’s not only designed to teach life skills, but to increase food security. The location? Not a classroom, but a mobile cooking cart.
This program was created in part with funding from the UC Global Food Initiative (GFI), which seeks to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population. Learn more about the GFI here.
Two of those teaching UCSB students how to cook are chefs who have become campus celebrities: the UCSB Soup Guys. The duo works out of the UCEN (University Center) dining operation. Both are French-trained culinarians. They share a passion for fresh, local ingredients. Their story is extraordinary. So is the work they do for the University of California.
The Soup Guys started out as a single Soup Guy, Mickael Blancho. Mickael was raised in Brittany, France. Recently, he moved up to a position managing the entire kitchen operation. Now there’s a new Soup Guy on the campus: Bernard Gayraud. Both men maintain the Soup Guy social presence (Instagram) and have a dedicated following on the campus …and beyond.
John Lazarus, assistant director of the University Center dining operation, told us this about the value of the work:
“We owe it to our community to do all we can to keep the environment, and the people who are part of that, healthy. That helps UCSB fulfill its core mission of teaching and research. UCEN Dining is proud to be a part of that mission, from expanding the sustainable food offering here at UCSB to being a part of the Food Nutrition and Basic Skills program teaching students how to cook quick, healthy and affordable food.”
After walking through the kitchen and chatting with line staff, Teresa and I huddled in a small office to learn more from the Soup Guys about the soup-making operation at UCSB. After that? Lunch at Romaine’s, where we conducted field research and ate…soup!
Q: How did classically trained French culinarians become the UCSB Soup Guys?
Mickael: Working for UCSB is a gem. I worked in the restaurant business for more than twenty years before coming to UCSB.
I grew up in Brittany. I trained in an apprenticeship at a restaurant – Le Cabestan – in the north part of Brittany. Then I moved to North Carolina, where I was a sous chef at a seafood bistro. I then moved to Seattle. I also worked on a river barge on the Mississippi. Then I worked in Bear Valley. Finally I came to Santa Barbara. Six years ago I got married and now have a daughter.
Being the Soup Guy means I work mostly during the week. It’s a great way to spend time with my family and is also a good fit for my lifestyle and what I want to do. Initially, I was hired with the UCEN dining operation and offered a position as the hot food chef. Once I got here, the management allowed me to use my creativity and said to take it to the level where I enjoy cooking. That’s when I became the Soup Guy.
Bernard: I’m from a small town in the south of France, near Toulouse, between Montpelier and where they make a famous cheese – Roquefort. I attended culinary school in Switzerland but worked in Paris. My wife is from the U.S. Twenty-five years ago we decided to come back to the U.S. I started a restaurant in Connecticut. After twenty-five years, we decided to move on. I was looking for a different place to work, California was offering quite a few jobs, including here at UCSB. I had a Skype interview with the director here and he hired me.
Q: You work for the UCEN dining operations. How is it different from the dining commons?
Mickael: The UCEN is a smaller operation. We provide soup for three venues. It’s been a progression here, and the UCEN is giving us tools to make growth happen. It’s really different than the dining commons. That’s a much bigger train to move along. In comparison, the UCEN dining has a pretty free rein, although we also have to keep food costs low and quality and consistency up. We have more interface with faculty, staff and the public. It feels very personal to serve a great product.
Bernard: As Mickael said, our soups are sold through three venues on campus: Romaine’s [in the UCEN], Coral Tree Café and the Courtyard Café. We make soups everyday, most from scratch. Mickael buys local product and there we go. We’re preparing seasonal soups.
Editor’s Note: If you’re visiting the UCSB campus or in the Santa Barbara area, you can check out the Soup Guys menu in advance here.
Q: How and where do you source your food?
Mickael: Twenty-five percent of the produce we use in our soups is local and organic. We try to go thirty percent or above, but we’re still selling soup inexpensively and organic produce is more expensive. If we use more organic ingredients, the cost will go up and students might not be able to afford our soup. It’s a balance.
We use Harvest Santa Barbara for much of our food…they were already providing food for the dining commons, so it was easy to leverage the existing agreement. We use Shalhoob – a local meat company – for some of our meat, including pork, grass fed beef and sausages. We source fish from Harbor Meat. We also get produce from another local company, the Berry Man.
We’re the only place on campus that serves food year around; other places close during breaks. Despite that schedule, we have a high standard for our food. We cook with passion and try to create something delicious every time.
Bernard: We try to share our passion for food and cooking with the students we employ. Students are very much involved and do appreciate what you teach them. They are not looking for a culinary profession or career necessarily. However, they do appreciate the skills they learn here that have nothing to do with school, but that they can carry on through their lives. It’s up to us to teach them and have them excited about food. They have a million other things to deal with, but are very committed and have a great work ethic.
Mickael: The food trend is bigger these days. People buy more local, organic food and are more into nonGMOs. There are many cooking shows on TV. Everyone wants to be a chef.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the campus commitment to your work?
Bernard: UCSB does not outsource the food production; there is no third party coming here. From the beginning, there has been the will to provide food that is better than a third party could provide. The trend is about the quality of food versus semi-processed food. I hope we don’t go back. It’s easier to do this in California, because suppliers are so close to us.
Q: Tell us about soup.
Mickael: For me, soup is a blank canvas to create a variety of different flavors. It can be prepared pretty cheaply, and you can make a big batch of it. Lots of our soups are more like stews. We also provide lots of sides for our soups, such as brown rice, udon noodles, crostini, orzo pasta. They are not just meat and vegetables…they are much more complex. You can eat soup year round. We try to do cold soups in the summer, such as vichyssoise and gazpacho.
When we started making vegan soups, people thought we might lose money. They thought that people might not want it and that vegan soups couldn’t be good. But creating vegan soups has provided endless opportunities to make soups that reflect multicultural cuisines: Asian, Moroccan, Indian, Vietnamese and more. We try to get recipes from different places, and we use new spices and ingredients we’ve never used before. We’re trying to create something original and delicious.
The Soup Guys provided a couple of great recipes for UC Food Observer readers. Let us know what you think!
Roasted Butternut Squash Lemongrass Infusion Coconut Curry (Vegan)
- 5 Medium Sized Butternut Squash
- 3 Ounces Lemongrass
- 1/2 Bunch Green Onions
- 6 Cups Water
- 2 Tablespoons Salt
- 1 Tablespoon Pepper
- 34 Ounces Coconut Milk
- 1/8 Teaspoon Garlic
- 3 Tablespoons Curry Powder
- 1 Tablespoon Nutmeg
- 1.5 Tablespoons Agave Syrup
- 1 Teaspoon Whole Fennel Seed
- 3 Pounds Caramelized Onions
- 1 Cup Ginger
Two Days Before: Cut butternut squash in half, remove seeds, and roast in oven at 300° for 1.5 hrs.
Day Before: Peel squash and reserve. Roughly chop ginger, simmer for 1.5 hrs. Add lemongrass for 1.5 hrs. Strain
Day Of: Take roasted squash, lemongrass infusion, water, spices, boil cook for 35 minutes. Add coconut milk, cook 10 minutes. Puree with mixer, add caramelized onions and green onions. Cook 5 minutes, and serve.
Coq au vin (Red wine chicken stew) – makes 2 gallons of soup
- 4lb chicken bones
- 4lb russet potatoes
- 3 lb chicken breast
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 lb chicken thigh
- 1/2c fresh thyme
- 3 lb pearl onion
- 1cup salts
- 5 whole carrots
- 1/2cup pepper
- 1 head celery
- 1 bottle dry red wine
- 3 parsnip
- 1lb butter
- 1 lb bacon
- 1lb flour
- 2lb white mushrooms
- 2 gallons water
- 2 bays leave
- 1 bunch of fresh parsley
1. Day before. Peel and dice all your veggies, save the scraps for the chicken stock. Make chicken stock with chicken bones, veggie scraps, salt/pepper, ½ of the thyme, bay leaves and water. Bring to a boil, simmer for 1 hour. Strain and reserve.
2. Marinate your chicken and veggies except pearl onions with salt/pepper, thyme, red wine and chopped garlic.
3. Day of the soup. Preheat your oven at 325 degrees.
4. Cook your bacon in oven at 325 degree for 18 min, strain fat and dice.
5. Roast your pearl onions in oven with ½ cup of oil for 25 min, mix often, strain and reserve.
5. Strain the marinated from the chicken and reserve.
6. Melt butter in pan and sear chicken at high heat on both sides for 2 min each, remove from pan and reserve. Once cool down, dice.
7. Add flour to the fat that is left in the pan to make a roux.
8. Add your marinated red wine and chicken stock, mix well.
9. Add your veggies, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 min.
10. Add your diced chicken.
11. Cover and cook in oven for 45 min at 325 degrees.
12. Add your bacon and pearl onion cook for 15 more min.
13. Remove from oven, cool for 5 min and add fresh parsley to garnish.
And in conclusion…
A video. When we saw this piece of equipment in use, fish stock was being prepared.