At Vita Nova, it’s always been quality over quantity, and it always will be. Even after a global pandemic ravaged the food services industry and caused businesses to shutter in droves, University of Delaware’s gourmet restaurant didn’t close, it recalibrated.
Numbers don’t lie about how the student-run restaurant, which encompasses a great deal of the hands-on experience they get in the hospitality business management major of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, persevered. Those numbers look something like this.
Dinner reservations for the entire month of September are almost fully booked. Following months are filling up. The first day of lunch will be September 6th and dinner will start the 7th.
One of two new executive chefs, Alison Rainis, is a UD Class of 2016 graduate of the Department of Hospitality and Sport Business Management and came highly recommended by previous longtime Vita Nova chef, Joe DiGregorio, who retired in May after more than 25 years of service. The second, Billy Rawstrom, is an award winning chef who owned a restaurant for 13 years and currently runs the Maiale Food Truck. He is known as the Sausage King of Delaware. The menu, which is seasonal and changes every semester, is filled with new, tasty items, including signature dishes that many love.
“Vita Nova prides itself in staying in the forefront of industry trends and preparing our students for success in the Hospitality Business,” said Nick Waller, instructor and dining room manager at the restaurant.
Who is New at Vita Nova?
After Rainis graduated from Lerner College she got her culinary degree from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. She worked for CulinArt, a food services company that operates at businesses and schools in 18 states and has 250 locations. Her first assignment was as the executive chef at a Lockheed Martin location. From there she went to Philadelphia and worked as the executive chef and general manager at an all girls prep school outside of the city, where she did batch cooking and prepared 500 meals a day. She also taught culinary arts at the school.
Rainis said even while still in school at the Lerner College she knew that she wanted to return to Vita Nova to work one day, and told her instructors as much. DiGregorio recruited her when the position opened.
“He would hate me saying this but I owe my career to him, because he mentored me as a student and beyond,” Rainis said of DiGregorio.
“This is really a full circle moment, “ she continued. “I’m excited and I’m ready to get going and be back at Vita [Nova}. It’s daunting obviously, but I think I have a little advantage, because I was here as a student. I know what it’s supposed to look like. I know what the feeling is supposed to be,” Rainis said.
This time she has her own office and will be instructing in the classroom, inspecting dishes and overseeing the kitchen and its students.
“We have always been strongly connected to our alumni who are brought back to the classroom every year to speak to students and often serve as guides/mentors. Getting one back to join us full time as faculty in this context makes it special,” said Srikanth Beldona, department chair of the hospitality and sports marketing department. “Alison is aware of what makes Vita Nova tick, which she demonstrated as a student and has now returned after gaining additional exceptional skills and exposure in the industry.”
Rawstrom, who started last year at the restaurant, owned and operated the Maiale Deli and Salumeria in Wilmington for 13 years. He still runs the business’s food truck after closing the restaurant. He has been featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with famed restaurateur, Guy Fieri. The Sausage King of Delaware, he specializes in making more than 30 unique varieties of sausage and 10 types of salami. He is also a past winner of the Delaware Burger Battle.
“Our Chef Instructors (Billy Rawstrom and Alison Rainis) both have a solid background in classical cuisine, a fundamental building block of the program, and also bring with them creativity from working in the industry, along with a solid background in teaching experience, which stands them in good stead to connect with our students and take them into the vanguard of the culinary world,” Waller said.
Diners should expect temporary changes at Vita Nova. Dining room capacity, which previously capped around 46, will be limited to 30 for dinner this semester. The bistro, which is an area primarily used for smaller late night gatherings where smaller portion meals were served, will be closed. Waller said this pivot was made to match lower staffing levels created by COVID-19. It is in line with the way Vita Nova, traditionally dine in only, created To Go menus during the pandemic to help students understand to be creative and flexible.
“The industry, like many others, has always been through crests and troughs, and this one has been longer due to the COVID-1P pandemic,” Beldona said. “Our Aramark Scholars program provides an opportunity for our students to come back to the restaurant and help them strengthen their skills in the creation and delivery of memorable guest experiences.”
Student staffing levels were impacted by the pandemic. There will be 21 on staff this semester, which is half of pre-pandemic class sizes. The glass half full side of that scenario is that students will get more attention from professors and more experience in the restaurant at a prescient time when the food service industry has stormed back to life and people are dining out and traveling for leisure. Waller called this moment a valuable lesson for students in today’s employment climate. Rainis said students will be prepared for a huge rebound in the industry, which is happening now.
“There was a dip in hospitality. Restaurants got shut down. We took a hit with travel, there’s no going around it. But now we’re recovering and now every hospitality company that we work with, every restaurant and hotel in the country is hiring. So if you put the work in and have a good showing during undergrad, there’s no doubt that you’re going to get placed into a job immediately after graduation,” Rainis said.
On The Menu
Rawstrom and Rainis will still teach three courses during the semester according to students’ grade level. Freshmen and sophomores will take Food Principals Lab, which they refer to as breakfast. They will still learn fundamentals of back of the house service. Knife skills, getting comfortable in the kitchen and cooking technique, which they will test when they cook for their peers. Lunch lab is primarily for sophomores and juniors, where they will learn front of the house skills, prepare food and act as chefs who prepare certain foods like appetizers and call out orders to the front of the house. Juniors and seniors will conquer the dinner class, which is the culmination of the program. By the time they earn their diplomas and walk across the stage, students will know how to manage gourmet restaurants, hotels and deal with headstrong chefs in busy kitchens.
“I’m more excited about the teaching element than anything else,” Rainis said. “Cooking is great and getting my hands dirty is great, but I like being able to show students how and what and when to do things, that’s probably the best part.”
Vita Nova patrons will see first hand what the teaching has amounted to when they sit to dine for a fixed price four-course meal with mouth watering dishes. This semester’s farm to table menu items include a new pasta dish with garlic confit pork sausage and broccoli rabe, which Rawstrom created. The menu will also feature filet mignon with Demi-Glace, potato terrine and a vegetable; short rib with polenta cake and broccoli rabe with a red wine reduction; sea scallops with cauliflower rice risotto with roasted beets and chive oil; roasted duck breast with sweet potato puree and a blackberry foam with blistered green beans; and pan-seared sea bass with a potato and corn medley served with a Beurre Blanc butter sauce and fried Brussels sprouts. Vita Nova will also serve a vegan meal, which is a play on chicken parmigiana. It is a portobello mushroom with spaghetti squash for pasta, puttanesca sauce and vegan cheese.
Also included in the four-course menu will be the appetizer trio of a curried squash soup with chive crema; lamb meatball with tomato and cucumber salad with tzatziki sauce and a pancetta crisp with whipped goat cheese, shaved Brussels sprouts and either a fig or fig jam on top. Lastly, for dessert, Vita Nova will bring back the duo, but with two new creations by Rainis. One will be a blood orange chocolate mousse with a pistachio brittle and Brûléed Orange. The second will be a Bourbon apple tartlet with strudel and a sour cream gelato.
There will be a plethora of meals served in Vita Nova from September to early December, when it closes for the semester, and many memories will be made. The new team looks forward to creating them.
“It’s going to be great this semester,” Rainis said with a big smile. “With the amount of students that we have we are trying to carry through with the expectation of when you come through Vita Nova, you know what you’re going to get.”