As the architect of Johns Hopkins' new university-operated dining program, Hamilton Goss has worked with his team to develop food safety protocols, curate supplier relationships, and develop over 800 recipes to meet the needs of Homewood campus students—all in his first year on the job.
While working through the intricacies of the transition to a self-operated dining model, Goss was especially focused on creating a sense of community, both on campus and beyond, working with Baltimore area businesses and farmers to obtain the 2,000-plus ingredients needed for the dining menu.
The sense of community that comes with a dining experience is what led Goss, the inaugural director of culinary innovation at Johns Hopkins University, to his culinary career. He started cooking with his great-grandmother when he was 3 years old, and he gained inspiration from his mother who owned a pastry business and Café 495, a restaurant in Marietta, Georgia, where lunch cost $4.95. From making family meals to working under his first chef at the age of 15, to now having over a decade of experience in higher education dining, Goss has been connecting people through food for years.
"Cooking was always a way of expressing love and a sense of providing," Goss says. "Creating something for someone is a beautiful thing, especially when they eat it and enjoy it."
The Hub sat down with Goss to learn more about his first year at Hopkins, his hopes for the future of the dining program, and, of course, some of his favorite personal dining experiences.
What have you learned in your first year in the role?
I've learned how vast and diverse Hopkins really is. Every time I get on a call with another group, I'm amazed by the amount of research, collaboration, and thought processes across the Homewood campus. I've also learned that food and the way it touches everyone has really created a natural intersection for Hopkins Dining and a lot of different departments. The Center for a Livable Future, for example, has been supporting Meatless Monday since it began in 2003, and we've had an opportunity to relaunch the campaign in the dining program and explore new ways to increase student interest in more plant-forward foods. I think there's been so much great energy that has existed around food on campus, but now that we've brought dining in-house, it's been a pleasant surprise to discover where the different groups can find a point of intersection with the dining program.
I think I'm most surprised by the social responsibility of Hopkins students—there's more awareness of where food comes from and what it represents. I think there's more of a feeling of social responsibility around food on this campus, which I really appreciate.
What's the most difficult part in planning a campus dining menu?
The most challenging and the most fun aspect is the complexity of it all. The Hopkins student is very multifaceted. We're so lucky to have a representation of students from around the world, with a lot of different backgrounds and thought processes. We want to create opportunities to educate our team about world flavors, and there's a great chance for the student body and for our team members to better understand what it means to cook some cuisines authentically. There's a fine balance to meeting the dietary needs and desires of our students, introducing them to new flavors, supporting their physical and mental health, and creating something that's dynamic over the years they're here.
There's also a need for a student to feel like they're at home, and that doesn't always come just from food. Sometimes it comes from the environment, and I think that's how we approach our customer service: We embrace the students with a level of familiarity and maintain a good awareness of each other. Creating a community of people serving people, where it's not just transactional, is a really important part of that. When you're at home, you feel at peace, and if we can provide that to students who are far away from home for their education, there's really no higher goal.
How do you get feedback on the program from the campus community?
We have some digital platforms we use, including our social media accounts and our website, and we also have a dining advisory committee. We're also able to determine popularity based on the portions of food we sell. Managers solicit feedback often—our dietician on staff, Jacqueline Weiss, gets feedback from a lot of our students related to nutritional requests, and our sustainability manager, Graham Browning, gets inquiries about our compostable materials. I like to get feedback from the cooks and chefs as well, since they're on the frontlines and can see students pause to consider dishes, or how they decide between two options, or whether they come back for seconds—those little nuances are really valuable. We're an open door; the only way we're going to get our program where we want it to be is by having as much feedback and input as possible.
What's your favorite food at Hopkins Café?
There are a lot of good items, but we have a new tandoori-style chicken that we put out this semester, and that flavor resonates with me the most. I'm also proud that all our fresh chicken is halal.
What's the best meal you've ever had?
For nostalgia's sake: My great-grandmother Eula Belle Higginbotham Cochran, a very Southern lady, would make a one-skillet breakfast with bacon, fresh tomatoes from her garden, eggs, and drop biscuits. I just remember being in awe of this person who was able to create and feed all of us in a matter of moments out of one pan.
I'm also a fan of unexpected meals. On our honeymoon through Portugal and France, my wife and I stopped at this little town in the Périgord region of France where only one restaurant was open. I had this salad, and the greens were so crisp; the dressing was perfect. Their walnut bread was made with walnuts from the grove at the bottom of the hill. I did not expect to be wowed, but it was absolutely perfect.
What's a food or a meal that you think everyone should try?
I love cassoulet, which is a French countryside dish. It is a bean stew, but it's created with such care and love that you just get this sense of, "This is what Thanksgiving feels like in one bowl," where it's warm and protected, and it feels like home.