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Wheaton College chef takes cafeteria food to next level

WheatCollege executive chef Patrick Cassatpretties up salad bar popular spot. The school has earned title Best Campus Food four times

Wheaton College executive chef Patrick Cassata pretties up the salad bar, a popular spot. The school has earned the title of Best Campus Food four times from the Princeton Review. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Eating at Wheaton

† Wheaton College is at 501 College Ave., near downtown Wheaton.

† Breakfast at Anderson Commons runs from 7:15 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Lunch is 11:15 to 1:30 p.m., and dinner is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday brunch is 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., followed by dinner from 5 to 7 p.m.; on Sunday, it's brunch only.

† Breakfast is $6.45, lunch is $9.25 and dinner is $10.60 — all you can eat, with dessert and drinks.

† The Stupe is open from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Burgers are $3.50; chicken sandwiches are $4.25.

† For more, call (630) 752-5394 or go to

† No reservations or fancy-pants tickets are required.

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:49AM

It wasn’t so long ago that Patrick Cassata was digesting the college life.

Cassata, 40, the executive chef at Wheaton College, remembers pizza puffs and late-night hot dogs at the Northern Light Cafe at Western Illinois University.

“It was just food at that point,” Cassata says during a lunch break in the snazzy Anderson Commons in the Todd Beamer Center. “I had to eat. I was not impressed.”

Cassata now cooks the best campus food in America, according to the Princeton Review’s annual college rankings released in August. It's the fourth time Wheaton College has earned this distinction.

The campus food was ranked through student questionnaires. Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine ranked second to Wheaton for best grub. And Wheaton finished second to Brigham Young University in the category of “Top stone-cold sober schools.”

Cassata works for Bon Appetit Management Co., based in Palo Alto, Calif., which provides catering services to nearly 500 schools and corporations nationwide. At Wheaton, he prepares his menus from scratch. He visits local farms. He talks to the students.

It is hard work. He could use a drink.

Wheaton College has 4,000 students, 2,100 of which are on the meal plan. Cassata serves 35,000 meals a week at Anderson Commons and the Stupe, a sandwich restaurant downstairs from the commons.

Cassata says. “That’s just students. We also do catering and we do concessions at the games.”

The acclaimed restaurants are even open to the public.

“When I got the call to interview, I was a little skeptical,” he says. “But once you experience this, it changes your perspective 100 percent. I’ve worked harder than I ever have to prepare from scratch. Every single day.

“I always tell the students, ‘You guys don’t know how lucky you are. That [38-person) staff back there cares so much about your happiness. ”

Custom meals

This is Cassata’s third year at Wheaton College. His first executive chef job was in 1995 at the late, great Mambo Grill in River North. He owned the restaurant Eclectic in Barrington, and ran the Bank Restaurant in downtown Wheaton and 10 West in downtown Naperville.

A native of Chicago’s Northwest Side, Cassata has an easygoing, hipster manner that is more Naperville than Wheaton. His ponytail is tied back and he talks to students eye to eye and heart to heart.

“I tell them if you want something, say it,” he says. “For instance, last year I asked one of the gluten-free students what they missed. They said, ‘I haven’t had pizza.’ So every Thursday night is pizza night and we’ve expanded, not only for regular gluten-free pizzas, but we have dairy-free, sugar-free, corn-free and soy-free pizzas. They have comment cards they fill out and we go through them every week.”

Guests graze between seven stations, a monster salad bar, a homemade bread station and a soup stop, where tomato basil is the most popular choice. Sometimes two stations are deployed to meet the high demand for hand-rolled maki rolls.

The fat-free salad dressings are made from scratch. Sugars and preservatives are reduced. A sign explains how the gluten-free chia seed, which is sprinkled over salads, improves concentration.

Bryn Sandberg, 19, is studying communications and journalism. She has a thyroid condition, and doctors told her to stop eating gluten products before she left her home in Portland for Wheaton.

“When we visited, my parents and I were happy to see they had a great food allergies section,” Sandberg says over a lunch of gluten- and dairy-free taco salad, an apple and gluten-free brownie. “I eat a gluten-free meal every day. Patrick gives you a paper with two options and if it is not on the list, they will make something. I eat better here than I eat at home.”

Raul Delgado, Bon Appetit’s on-site general manager, surveys students once a week and has created student cuisine teams with the student government, as well as a similar team with the faculty.

“We think of ourselves not as a contract company, but as a restaurant company,” says Delgado.

Cassata adds, “I loved what the college was about, what Bon Appetit stood for in its socio-responsible programs. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.”

Community roots

Fedele Bauccio was pushing sustainability as early as 1987 when he co-founded Bon Appetit in Palo Alto. He launched a “Farm to Fork” program in 1999, and the James Beard Foundation recognized his efforts with one of its inaugural Leadership Awards.

The company works with 1,400 family farms and co-ops across the country. Cassata buys greens from a geothermal farm in Fairbury, about 90 miles south of Wheaton.

“They’re grown in the water,” he says. “They come to us alive.”

Delgado, 47, says their customers are “so much more educated about food than I’ve ever seen. They’ve heard something is good for high omega-3s — ‘Do you have that?’ The school also has to believe this is important. When I went to school it was, ‘We have to feed them, you’re here for an education.’ But this school understands the importance of community.”

Cassata knows of some students who have changed their choice of school because of what Wheaton College offers.

“They’re always stunned at the levels we are willing to go for them,” he says.

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