Centre College Executive Chef Miguel Rivas recently was awarded Certified Executive Chef status from the American Culinary Federation. At Centre, Chef Rivas often creates meals and pop-up food stations that celebrate his culinary career, from his upbringing in the Dominican Republic, to culinary school and internships in New York City and Paris, France, to his influences here in Kentucky. We took a moment to speak with Rivas about the unique benefits of working in a college setting and the ways in which his diverse culinary experience continues to inspire him.
Q: Why did you decide to transition from the New York City restaurant scene to Centre College?
A: I’ve lived in Lexington already for quite a while, about 12 or 13 years, and Lexington just has a more laid-back and friendly atmosphere. New York City is fun, but it is too crowded, and I wanted a more slow-paced city.
Q: How does your prior culinary experience influence the recipes you prepare at Centre?
A: I always look back to my roots, to my upbringing as well as my culinary experience. I have had the privilege of working for very good chefs in the past, so I go back and study their styles and recipes and I see how that inspires me. We recently had a Latin American event, so I went back to my roots and the dishes that I grew up with as well as dishes that my Latino friends from Cuba, Puerto Rico and all over South America have made.
Q: What is your favorite part about cooking in a college setting?
A: Dealing with the students. In a private restaurant, you’re in the back and you don’t get to see much of the action going on. Here I step into the dining room and look at the students’ faces and see if they are having a good experience. I try to talk to them as much as I can. We also have the student Food Committee every month, so we get pretty much immediate feedback on what we are doing. We also get to know what the students like, what they would like to see more of, and it gives me inspiration. Some of them have even given us their mother’s favorite recipe. Little things like that make it special.
Q: What is your favorite meal to prepare for students? If you could prepare a “dream” meal, what would it be?
A: I know that students particularly like the Chicken Nugget bar, those kind of friendly foods, but there is one recipe that goes really well every time we do it. It is a glazed pork loin, and we go through almost all of it every time we make it. If I had the chance to do a nice sit-down meal for all the students, I would make a pan-seared halibut or grouper. I would like them to experience fish that is out of the mainstream that they probably won’t see unless they go to an upscale restaurant. We have already incorporated a lot of fresh seafood in the menu, particularly salmon and tilapia.
Q: How have you grown as a chef since you began working at Centre?
A: As far as culinary work goes, the college environment is a challenge, because you have a captive audience that comes here every day and sees what you do. They also get tired of seeing the same thing every day. It’s a challenge to keep up with that culinary entertainment. That has been a tremendous contribution to my career, dealing with that daily challenge. How to make it look different, how to wow them today, how to make it something special. Also, dealing with a high-volume operation like this one has definitely contributed to my skills.
Q: How do you incorporate locally sourced ingredients into the Centre dining menu?
A: We work very closely with Kentucky farms through Creation Gardens and Papania, our produce purveyors. During the season, we get all the vegetables we can locally, such as zucchini, tomatoes, yellow squash, sweet potatoes and a lot of corn. We also get a lot of local pecans and jams, and we incorporate locally-made sausage.
Q: What plans do you have for the future of Centre dining?
A: We are working on something pretty exciting. Whenever we can, we try to come out here and do a pop-up restaurant where I make ceviche or smoothies, and the students love it. They like seeing the action happening and the fresh ingredients right there. We are working on a station that we would set up somewhere in the dining room where I would come out once or twice a week and do something like that. It’s the kind of thing that takes the students out of their daily routine.
On Feb. 15, Centre hosted the “Our Town, Throw Down, Battle of the Chefs,” where Rivas won first place with his brisket and grits, after battling with executive chefs from Transylvania University, Bellarmine University, Georgetown College and Berea College in Cowan Dining Hall. Each chef prepared a Kentucky-inspired dish that was served during lunch.
Chef Miguel Rivas (photo credit – Robin Hart)
by Centre College News
February 21, 2018