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NMSU executive chef brings fresh approach to campus dining

Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, canned ravioli: the staples of the college diet, for better or worse.

Executive Chef Clint Kifolo prepares food at the Third Floor Bistro at the Danny Villanueva Victory Club on the New Mexico State University campus. Kifolo is a certified raw food chef and works wonders with unprocessed, often organic vegetables and other foods. (NMSU photo by Mark Cramer)

For New Mexico State University students, however, there are options that are significantly better - after all, they have access to a multitalented, experienced executive chef in Clinton Kifolo.

Kifolo is new to NMSU, having come to town with Sodexo when the popular vendor took over management of the university's food services July 1. He brought with him a friendly, fresh approach to dining services, ensuring that students and guests not only get a good meal at any time, but that they have a positive experience while dining as well.

The culinary veteran is no stranger to the university environment, having relocated to NMSU after a five-year stint at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.

"I've worked at Westminster College, just north of Pittsburgh; Susquehanna University, just north of Harrisburg; East Stroudsburg University, in the Poconos just southwest of New York City," Kifolo said. "And I've worked at various country clubs and restaurants throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area. At one time I was a chef on board an offshore oil installation." That experience took Kifolo to destinations as diverse as Belfast, Northern Ireland; Brazil; Trinidad and Tobago; and the Gulf of Mexico.

"I've been in New Mexico since mid-June and loving every minute of it," said Kifolo, who has been cooking professionally for 27 years and been an executive chef for 25 of those years - the last five of those with Sodexo. "To put it into perspective, Youngstown, Ohio, is 350 days of clouds and rain and New Mexico is 350 days of sunshine and virtually no rain. I did enjoy my time in Youngstown, let's not get me wrong, but it's nice to have the sunshine."

Kifolo's work ethic and commitment to his customers' dining experience begins well before ingredients hit the pan - in the Third Floor Bistro at the Danny Villanueva Victory Club, in the Stan Fulton Athletic Center on the east side of Aggie Memorial Stadium, everything is made from scratch.

"The ketchup is made from scratch, the hamburgers are hand-ground choice beef, the ricotta cheese appetizer is made in-house -we make it back on the stove using the old way of curdling milk and straining it out," he said. "The brioche buns that the hamburgers are on are all made from scratch, all the salad dressings are made here on the premises. It's something that I firmly believe in - if you're going to do something right, or do something well, do it right to begin with."

The Third Floor Bistro at the Danny Villanueva Victory Club is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Many Las Cruces residents may not realize that the other NMSU dining locations are open to them as well - all with the same devotion to quality ingredients, preparation and service.

"Taos is the residential dining restaurant for the students that live on campus, faculty and staff that want to come in - it is open to the public, which is a great value - $7.50 for lunch, all you care to eat, so that's a huge value," said Kifolo. "There again we utilize as much as we can of from-scratch items in the dining hall. We're not there yet on utilizing everything, but we are producing some items that are from scratch."
A typical work day for Kifolo begins around 7:30 or 8 a.m., as he checks on all of the cooks and everything culinary-related within Taos, the catering department, Third Floor Bistro and the retail environments: Einstein Brothers Bagels, Taco Bell, Chick-Fil-A, Grill 155 and Subway. By 11:30 a.m. he arrives at the Third Floor Bistro to check on things. He's quick to point out, however, that he is simply part of a total team effort.

"Sodexo has 200 employees at NMSU, and I personally manage 30 of those employees. I delegate things out to my sous chefs and other supervisory cooks. I have one intern now who works with us in the kitchen and does some of our paperwork," he said. "She enters some numbers and she's learning the management end of it. I would love to have more. There are a lot of great people with me that make up what we do here on campus. If I don't have those 200 employees and the team of managers that I have it would be difficult every single day to do what we do. I would love to be more involved with some of NMSU's Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management programs. We're new, so we really haven't made those connections as of yet."

Kifolo's ultimate goal is to not only team up with HRTM, but to team up with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences to start bringing in fresh vegetables grown on campus. Already he has brought into the Bistro the Holy Jolokia salsas and sauces marketed by the university's Chile Pepper Institute.

"I would love to make this a self-sustainable dining option on campus, where we can bring in products grown and raised on campus into the dining halls - just make it a complete, sustainable program," Kifolo said. "If we can figure out a way to bring products in that fall into our regulations and are healthy and kept within our guidelines of bringing products into our units, that would be phenomenal."

Kifolo is sure there is something for everyone at NMSU's dining establishments, especially the Third Floor Bistro at the Danny Villanueva Victory Club. In addition to his delectable carnivorous offerings, he is a certified raw food chef and works wonders with unprocessed, often organic vegetables and other foods.

"I do what I do because it's fun. The chef business is hard work; it's not something that I would recommend to people that don't understand the business. It's long hours, it's long weekends, it's time away from family, time away from friends, but the end result of providing quality food products and/or seeing the smiles on happy faces as they eat your food is well worth some of the sacrifices that we make."