Back to School with Executive Chef Zachary Puhala of Wittenberg University’s Parkhurst Dining

August 2, 2021

School is almost back in session, and that means university dining is coming back too! We sat down with Executive Chef Zachary Puhala to get the scoop on what it's like to be head chef of a kitchen that feeds thousands of students and staff. 


Can you walk us through your career path and how you ended up in the role you have now?  

                Before working in the culinary field, I was a graphic artist and as much as I enjoyed making art, I wasn’t a fan of sitting all day. I got into hospitality through serving at a country club where I happened to also be lifeguarding, and after a while I started to look for a new and more cooking-focused culinary opportunity. It just so happened that I was invited to attend a dinner at my alma mater where my college roommate was being inducted into their athletic hall of fame. I met the General Manager of Dining Services and gave him my number in case they were hiring. Low and behold, the next day I received a call from him, went in for an interview, and was hired on the spot as a dinner cook. I worked my way up the ranks, moving to different accounts for Parkhurst Dining until I ultimately ended up here in Springfield, Ohio at Wittenberg University as the Executive Chef.   


What has influenced your cooking style and how would you describe it?  


 I read a lot; all sorts of cookbooks (not just for the pretty pictures), nerdy Star Wars books, literary classics, back-to-the-science-of-cooking books. All of that keeps me curious about the next thing or classics that have long been replaced by the current food trends.  

                I had to have some assistance with describing my style, I find it very difficult to pinpoint. When asking around, these are some ways it was described to me…  

  • Familiar with a Flair 
  • Eclectic Modern 
  • Family Oriented Gourmet 
  • Locally Focused 
  • Accessible 


What are some challenges of working in university dining? What are some benefits?  

                I would say one of the biggest challenges is that we see our guests for every meal of every day. After four years (sometimes more) of eating every meal at the same place, the guests get burnt out. So, we try to keep doing new things, different events, anything to get the guests engaged with us. The other obstacle we have is how people assume we are ‘just cafeteria food.’ They don’t always realize we make our items from scratch; pizza dough made from scratch in house, fresh cut fries every day, dressings made from scratch, and same with our stocks and soups.  

                One of the coolest things is seeing and meeting guests from all over the world, often they share recipes with us to expand our repertoire. We also get to do demos for the guests with our vendors and friends from other restaurants which is exciting. Also, we get to do some really fun catering with different clients - like events at the local brewery, weddings, large plated meals, and even small private dinner parties.  


What trends are you noticing around the culture of food in the current college-aged generation?   

                I feel like college aged students now are exposed to so many different types of food before even leaving home. Mostly due to Food Network and all the exciting cooking shows, so many of them are curious about trying new things - our students now tend to be more adventurous than they were 10 years ago. A lot of the students are more interested in where the food is coming from instead of just accepting a plate of food. The students also want to be involved with the meals - they want more than just a plate of food; they want it to be an experience. With so many meal delivery services available to them, they are looking for a unique and personal experience.  


What is your advice to someone starting out in the culinary field?  

                Working in the culinary field can be extremely rewarding, but you have to put in the hard work to reap those rewards.  Focus on doing the best you can when peeling four boxes of potatoes, making 20 pounds of wedding soup meatballs, having to supreme 200 oranges; that repetition of fundamental skills will pay off and allow you to evolve into a better chef. Also, learn from everyone you work with - from the dish washers to the chef, they all have something to teach you and add to your experience. 


It’s the end of a long shift and food service is wrapping up. What is your go-to dish as a reward for all the hard work?   

                Does a beer at the local brewery count? Really, though, it would probably be a slice or two of pizza, or anything else I didn’t cook.  


Interview by: Marianna Marchenko