By Katie Zeck
Growing up in Long Island with grandparents who lived in Queens, N.Y., Victor Caruso was born into a lifestyle infused with strong Italian culture.
With large family Sunday dinners, partaking in the seven fishes tradition on Christmas Eve and a mother and grandmother who regularly cooked for the masses, Caruso easily found his way into the culinary profession.
“If my mother was working and I wanted to eat, I had to cook,” Caruso said. “After high school, I went to school for hotel and restaurant management. I didn’t particularly care for it too much, I wanted to cook. So I then went to school to be a chef, and now I’m going on 20 years of professional cooking.”
As the new executive head chef of Daly’s on the Lawrenceville campus, Caruso said that he has found an environment that he enjoys working in and where he has a decent amount of creative license.
“I like cooking all types of food, that’s one of the reasons I love working at a college and doing this; there’s something different everyday,” he said. “I never get bored.”
Following college at the New York Restaurant School, Caruso started out working at restaurants in Manhattan, the Hamptons and Long Island. Since that time, he worked for 15 years as a chef in corporate dining halls, and has been with Aramark for a year and a half.
“With [Aramark] I started by running the New York University dining hall, but I realized I wanted something closer to home,” said Caruso, a Pennsylvania resident. “[Rider] came up, and I love the program and the renovations, and I was lucky enough to jump on it. “
Since transitioning to Rider, Caruso has revamped the menu at Daly’s and improved the overall food service and food preparation.
“I wrote all the menus here, so a lot of the stuff that you’ll see at the culinary creations station and the global station are all mine,” he said. “I got a lot of my ideas from when I worked in corporate cafeterias, and just from what I know growing up, working in restaurants and knowing what sells.”
He’s updated the menu to include more personalized, fresh and customizable meals with higher-end, restaurant-style options.
“Students seem to like a lot of the restaurant-quality food like the filet mignon,” he said. “Even the duck breast I did last week went very well. And we like to do small portions so they can try it and then come back two, or three times. But we’ve kept the basics too, like tacos or quesadilla. We get killed with that.”
Caruso stressed the sentiment that every individual student’s personal diet requirements would be addressed.
“We’ve met some of the new freshmen who have allergies, and we’re doing special meals for them,” he said. “We want to make it clear that we want to do everything we can to accommodate dietary needs. We don’t want anyone to miss out on coming in to talk and eat. We do what we can to accommodate everyone.”
Caruso also said that he takes all feedback, both good and bad, very seriously and looks to it to enhance the students’ overall dining experience.
“If I don’t get feedback, I can’t fix it or improve the food,” he said. “Sometimes it’s valid and sometimes it’s not, but either way we listen to it and we’ll investigate it the best we can if it’s a complaint. If it’s a compliment, we’ll build on it. The more feedback we get, the more we’ll implement and make stuff students want to eat.”
As a way to extend on the idea of using suggestions and criticism to improve the quality and service of food, Caruso and the Aramark manager are continuing to conduct food committee meetings where students can meet and express any concerns or ideas they have.
“We sit with about 10 or 12 students and listen to feedback from their friends and everything,” he said. “The more ideas and suggestions we get, the more it helps us, and so far it’s been very successful We’ve had good feedback.”
Despite moving from New York to the Pennsylvania Pocono area, Caruso has maintained his unmistakable Long Island accent. He’s bald, yet wears a black chef’s hat, towers over every other staff member and sports a thin strip of gray hair down the center of his chin. From afar, an easygoing demeanor might not be what you’d expect to come out of Caruso.
Deep down, however, he’s a family man.
“I have five aunts and uncles and 12 cousins — it’s a big family, so it was always a party when we got together,” he said. “My grandmother just turned 97 and she’s still a great cook. My mother’s a great cook because of her, and she still cooks at 77 all the time for me. They’ll cook enough for an army even though it’s one person, and as soon as you walk in, you smell their cooking before you’re even through the door.”
As for his go-to meal of choice, it’s not the Italian cuisine he grew up on.
“I’m a big barbeque fan,” he said. “I have a smoker at home so I really enjoy smoking my own meats and doing barbeque in different ways. I like going out and trying different barbeque restaurants, so it’s just something I like doing. I can’t get away from the cooking.”
His down-to-earth qualities don’t stop at the dinner plate. Caruso’s hands-on approach to Daly’s keeps him involved in every aspect of the dining hall.
“I’ll jump on stations, work the grill, stuff like that,” he said. “I like to be out there, talking to the students to see what they like. It’s not just me, it’s the whole staff. I have great sous-chefs and the whole staff in general has really bought into the program. They love serving the students; we have some really friendly people. It’s a great place to work.”