Longevity in life can be associated with what you eat.  Longevity in your career can be associated with the example you set and how you treat those you employ and serve.  For Duane Leitzell, Director of Dining Services at The Village at Penn State, his love of food, his staff, and the residents at The Village come together to form a lasting bond.

Duane, a State College native who graduated from the distinguished Penn State School of Hospitality Management, shares his experience in our ongoing “A Day in the Life” series.

In April I began working at the Village, which was prior to opening day in August 2003. And almost 15 years later, I’m here with the same vigor as when I began this journey. I’m also proud to say that my first two hires, Executive Chef Craig Hamilton and Lead Utility Coordinator Don Nyman, are still here at The Village as well.

The most important time of our day is service time; whether that is breakfast, lunch, or dinner. We managers are always visible and present. It’s important for us to balance multiple responsibilities at once and provide support where it’s needed most. We work in the dining rooms and in the kitchens and go where we’re needed. For instance, if the chefs need help in the kitchen, I’ll pitch in on the line. If the servers need help with a rush, I’ll be there with them bussing tables. It’s also my responsibility to perform quality control in order to ensure that our residents have the best possible service and dining experience.

Pretty much every night before dinner, I’ll pop behind the bar and serve drinks. One of the rules for front-of-the-house managers is that we must visit each table every night to ensure residents are having the experience they deserve.

When it comes to overseeing the cuisine and menu, Chef Craig and I create a monthly full menu for everyday dining. We then help craft the chef’s daily featured entree, a featured sandwich, featured omelet, and a featured salad. The biggest driver for culinary folks is creative expression. Many times we will turn these featured items over to our chefs to see what they can create. The chefs have freedom to explore and devise features based on locally grown, in-season produce, or however they want to set the parameters. We might help them refine the dishes, but the dishes start with the chefs’ own imagination.

A distinguishing aspect of The Village is the Chef’s Table private dining experience. This is held once per month or upon request if a resident has special guests visiting. Chef Craig and I will team up to create a menu based on the requests of the resident, or sometimes we’ll have carte blanche to create a menu from scratch that the resident won’t even see until we deliver it to the table. While I’m not a wine expert by trade, through the years there are some learned skills that help me pair almost any meal with the perfect wine.

There is locally grown food, and then there is food that you can actually watch as it grows. The Penn State Farm Club is now in their second growing season. We’ve partnered with them to buy produce directly from them. One can see their farm from my office window. Each Friday, we receive an email from the Farm Club detailing what will be harvested on Monday morning. I’ll email our order and the students deliver it Monday afternoon fresh from the field. Our team can then have it on the menu as early as Tuesday. We make sure that everyone knows that their fresh vegetables are grown by students right at the base of The Village. Chef Craig and I also travel to local Amish farm stands and buy direct depending on what is in season and what was harvested that day.

Having come up through the culinary ranks—I am still passionate about being on the line, sautéing, and in the deep. Through the years, I’ve learned that the front-of-the-house managers, servers, bus boys/girls, and back-of-the-house chefs, line cooks, and dishwashers, are equally important and mutually inclusive. You need the balance.

I am proud of the experience and lifestyle The Village provides to its residents, and I am equally proud to stand by the mission I created when I started here – “High quality, fresh food, and heartfelt service every day.”

Learn more about university-based living at The Village at Penn State by visiting RetireAtPennState.org.

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