Filet mignon, pumpkin risotto, and sea bass bouillabaisse—sounds like the menu of Philadelphia’s finest restaurant. Instead, these are just a few of the “featured entrées” served up to students at New College House (NCH). Though seemingly unbelievable, the proof can be found on the social media of the NCH head Chef, Zach Hankins. Zach shows off his culinary creations daily on his NCH-exclusive Foodstagram, @ChefZachHankins.
Hankins first became interested in cooking while watching his mom in the kitchen. By age four, he joked that he was already grilling up chicken breasts on his own. “I have a photo of myself from my fifth grade year book, and it says what do you want to be when you grow up, and it says I want to be a chef and go to culinary arts school. [Ever] since I knew what a job or a career was, it was what I wanted to do.”
Hankins followed his dream, earning his degree from the Academy of Culinary Arts. The curriculum at the school derives from Johnson & Wales University, the “Penn equivalent of culinary school” as he describes it. He then worked in the restaurant industry, earning experiences that would later influence his cooking at Penn.
Hankins worked at Falk Dining Café in Hillel before becoming the head chef at NCH. His new location at NCH has a more intimate venue, perfect for crafting creative dishes for each dinner. “It is the most realistic [venue for a] hot line that I have seen on campus. Students gather around and see us put the plates together. One guy is grilling steaks, another cook is helping to plate it up. They see it from start to finish. It gives it a more personal feel,” Hankins said.
While he describes New College House as similar to a restaurant setting, it pales in comparison to his past culinary experience. “It is easy to crank 200 or 300 steaks out in a night. The atmosphere in here on a really busy night is pretty nice. When I was [working] in Atlantic City, I was on a grill cooking 800 steaks a night. That is what I am used to at this point.”
Exclusive to New College House, the featured entrée each night is always a cooked–to–order dish crafted by Chef Zach Hankins and his cooks. With the guidelines set by Bon Appétit, Hankins has control over most of the dishes he offers. “It is a very chef-driven kitchen. Whatever Zach is getting inspired by, we start there.”
Hankins takes advantage of his culinary freedom in NCH. His favorite dish that he has prepared was for their harvest-themed dinner. He plated duck three ways, a confit duck leg with a duck pâté sauce over duck galantine. “It is cool to bring food that some people have never seen and bring it in the dining hall. I have friends that went to Penn State, and they see my food. They are blown away that we are able to do this at a University.”
In addition to creative creations, Hankins also attempts to bring the flavors of home into the kitchen. During the dinner rush, he circles the dining hall to ask diners for recommendations, or “touch tables, as we call it in the industry.” After talking to one student from Italy, Hankins was inspired to prepare his attempt at a porchetta pork roast. “He said, my mom makes this great pork porchetta. So he inspired that. I said, I don’t know if I can make it like your mom, but I can sure try. I can put my own fine dining spin it. It is cool to bring food that some people have never seen and bring it in the dining hall.”
Coming up, New College House is hosting the College House and Academic Services’ Penn Student Film Festival. Even though it is not until March 28th, Hankins has already started experimenting in the kitchen to craft the perfect meal. “They asked for a themed menu. They wanted Hollywood, and the first thing I thought of was surf and turf or caviar.” While caviar might not be included in a dining hall swipe, Chef Zach took inspiration from Penn's chemistry student to mimic the look of caviar with molecular gastronomy. The result is “balsamic caviar,” small balls of balsamic vinegar that burst like the fish eggs. “It's like a gusher, it looks like faux caviar. I am still working the kinks on how to mass produce it.”
While mixing science with supper might be out of some students’ comfort zones, Chef Hankins encourages his diners to try new foods and cooking styles. “I just want to continue to make good food and try new foods. And I want them to enjoy coming here. There is a lot of things you can do with [food] that people don’t know or haven’t seen.” They say college is for expanding your horizons, right?