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  Chef Paolo Stefani
Chef Paolo Stefani

Food for thought
Chef Paolo Stefani and his Allen Center team provide tasty fare for learning

By Kari Richardson

If food fuels thinking brains, it's no wonder that the Kellogg School's executive programs are ranked among the best in the country.

Regardless of their culinary preferences, guests at the James L. Allen Center needn't venture far from their classrooms to find dishes to rival their favorite restaurant meals. Some enjoy delicate she-crab soup, flavored with just the right amount of sherry. Others are fans of authentic Tuscan dishes created to showcase the wild game that roam the Italian countryside. Still others rave about "buffet nights" that allow them to nibble their way through the cuisine of a specific geographic region - the Pacific Northwest and Cape Cod being two examples.

These guests can thank Chef Paolo Stefani and his team of 40, who staff the kitchens seven days a week, ensuring no one goes away hungry.

"I try to be as authentic as I can," Stefani says, leading a tour of the cozy, tidy kitchen where workers produce as many as 600 lunches or 400 formal dinners during especially busy periods at the school. "When I travel I bring back recipe books. And I use my time in the kitchen to experiment as much as possible."

Stefani, who holds a degree in culinary arts from Chicago's Kendall College, began his career in hotel food service. When he felt burnout creeping in, he put his U.S. career on hold and traveled to Italy - his parents' homeland - to work in a Tuscan restaurant kitchen for six months.

In Italy, Stefani bunked with family members and spent hours laboring in the highly regarded Il Cibreo, where he steeped himself in "peasant food" culture, mastering recipes Allen Center guests find on the menu today.

Upon returning to the States, Stefani accepted a job as Northwestern University's director of catering, and later, as executive chef at the Allen Center, where he's worked for the past three years. As part of this job, he plans menus, works to secure the freshest ingredients and interacts with guests to ensure their culinary experiences are enjoyable. No easy feat, his role demands that he provide meals for executives accustomed to dining in the world's best restaurants and satisfy the international palates of the global managers who travel to Evanston for executive programs.

Stefani is up to the challenge. His recent accolades include a top finish in the "Copper Skillet" competition sponsored by the International Association of Conference Centers, in which he used 30 staple ingredients and two "mystery ingredients" to create a citrus-spiced lamb loin within the contest's 30-minute time limit.

Always modest, Stefani credits his Allen Center success to his kitchen crew, a group he calls one of the most loyal and hardworking he's ever seen. "The staff is amazing," he says. "Some have been here 25 years. It's such a family atmosphere. Once people get here they don't want to go anywhere else, and that includes me."

That's fortunate for Allen Center guests - more delicious fuel for thought is on the way.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University