When Raul Lacara was washing dishes at the Nikko Hotel in the Philippines, he couldn’t help but admire the chefs’ tall hats and crisp white coats. “I just wanted to wear the uniforms,” recalls the 47-year-old Lacara.
That inclination would lead him around the world, eventually to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, which last week won The Financial Times’ honor as the school with the best food in executive education.
For Lacara, who has prepared dishes for the Dalai Lama, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Al Gore, it is the seventh time in the past eight years to win the FT recognition. Stanford retained its number one position, easily beating even the best European business schools in France, Spain and England. Chicago Booth, Wharton, the University of Virginia’s Darden School, and Harvard Business School rounded out the top five, chosen on the basis of customer satisfaction surveys (see list of the top 25).
Lacara joined Schwab Executive Dining in 1999 as the executive chef and mastermind behind the award-winning dining program. Now the associate director at Schwab, he’s responsible for imparting his skills to a staff that feeds several hundred business professionals daily.
So what’s it like crafting meals for top executives at one of the world’s most prestigious B-schools? It’s a lot of preparation for one thing. “It’s a totally different level, for sure, than when you work in hotels and restaurants, where you really don’t know the people you’re feeding,” Lacara says. Unlike a restaurant where chefs whip something up and serve it out, Raul and Eric Montell, the executive director of Stanford dining, carefully review the executives’ profiles for food allergies, preferences and dietary concerns. “We don’t want anybody left out – the vegetarians, the vegans, the celiacs – we want them to enjoy the food.” But it goes even beyond that. They try not to serve executives their competitors’ products and make an effort to incorporate the foodstuffs of Stanford alums into the meals. And repeating dishes during executives’ stays is a cardinal sin – and a challenge during the six-week programs.
Lacara is also keenly conscious about sustainability. His chefs use cage-free eggs, organic non-fat milk, locally sourced fruits and vegetables and grass-fed beef. They import 15,000 pounds of wild Alaskan salmon annually from Taku River Reds family fishery. Then there’s the nutritional considerations to factor in – which foods will boost brain power, raise energy levels and improve performance? Lacara consults with a staff nutritionist to make sure his meals are balanced and brimming with nutrients.
For dinner, executives can choose from a basil-crusted Alaskan salmon with caper, olive and parsley relish and tomato – the fish is chock-full of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. More decadent diners can spring for beef tenderloin marinated with dark beer sauce and creamed truffle potatoes. And for those with a sweet tooth? How about chocolate opera cake with fruit gastrique? Not exactly what you would expect at a business school dining room.
If that’s not enough to wet executives’ palates, Lacara welcomes custom requests. He’s secured special cheeses an executive remembered from childhood and ordered water from out-of-state after one top business professional refused to drink from California sources. If a few Chinese executives fly in for a course, Raul makes sure they feel at home by featuring authentic Chinese food on the menu. “Because Raul has such a strong background in other cuisines, he’s able to translate that for the executives that come,” Montell says. If a leader from Jim Beam or Heineken drops in, you can be sure Lacara will fit their beverage brands into the menu. When the school hosted John Slosar, the chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways, silk outfits were flown in from Asia for each participant to wear during the final gala. Staff also dressed in Asian attire.