the ratty’s underbelly

a fresh look at the sharpe refectory

As the largest dining hall on campus, the Sharpe Refectory often sits as an object of affectionate disdain. To most of the student body, the Refectory is just a single floor with old booths and an outdated 1950s-service-style cafeteria. But they don’t know what happens below.

Home to the quirky administrative staff and energetic culinary team of Brown Dining Services, the Refectory’s base floor is where the ingredients are chosen, delivered, tasted, and prepared.

Every day’s menu choices, from the forty-and-one-tenth of a pound of fresh squash to the milliliters of handmade pesto sauce, are thoughtfully and objectively chosen based on metrics like last year’s attendance numbers and food volume records. Many of the ingredients are locally grown, purchased from small farms in and around Rhode Island and delivered to the team who shapes our food with the utmost care. And that is where the story begins, with these people.

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I first met Aaron Fitzsenry in my freshman year. As an impassioned advocate for healthier food options, I had reached out to Dining Services to discuss improvements. Linked first to the head chef, John O’Shea, I set up a meeting one Friday afternoon in late April. I arrived nervously, brimming with ideas and prepared with materials and recommendations based on student surveys. But it wasn’t John who sat down with me that Friday in the almost empty Ivy Room.

Over the low murmurs of BuDS workers on a late lunch break, Aaron Fitzsenry, assistant chef, sat across from me, his blue eyes bright with energy and optimism.

I started by addressing the most common complaint about Brown’s lack of fresh fruits. He responded with measured words: “As we try to stay local and seasonal, it is hard to get berries and other fruits that grow in the winter months.”

As our conversation went on, what I learned about food at the Refectory turned my misconceptions on their undercooked heads. His tone wasn’t defensive, just energized and informative, as he told me that the chicken I dismissed as peculiar or grayish were all-natural chicken breasts sourced from a local distributor, Warwick Poultry. Or that the squashes that populate different dishes throughout the winter months come from Art Mello of Mello Family Farms and are chopped, roasted, and seasoned by the chefs who work their days one floor below us in the hot and harried basement of the Refectory.

Our conversation drifted and I learned more about his life. He talked about his pastry chef wife and recapped recent food adventures. “We spent our winter searching for the best brownie in Providence. It was a big undertaking,” he said through a smile. I asked for restaurant recommendations and he obliged, revealing gems that soon became my favorites: Rasoi, Pakarang, Ellie’s Bakery, and Cafe Choklad.

He revealed his love for running. Yet running seems to be an understatement—he runs marathons. Outside every morning and every season—autumn, spring, summer, winter—he trains. And he simply loves it. He lives his life like he prepares his foods: “As simply as possible with the best quality ingredients so as not to screw up something good.”

And so, our conversation grew into a friendship.

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Almost a year later, Aaron directs me through the lower level of the Refectory attached to the Ivy Room. Walking through the steel double doors into the central area, I’m met with a burst of moist air. Large industrial-grade dishwashing machines release steam as they groan and creak, churning out clean dishes for the next meal. These loud and oddly comforting noises intermingle with the staffs’ conversations in an inviting way. To the left of the dishwashers, across the enormous floor, large steel food-preparation tables sit surrounded by the cooking staff who chop and prep ingredients for dinner. To the right sits the bakeshop decked out with any and all of your baking needs: flour, chocolate, icing, and more.

He leads me to a little room that I had missed on all my prior visits to the Ratty. With floor-to-ceiling clear windows and a glass door, the room is visible to all bystanders, but stands separate. Working around the central steel island, four student workers are wrist-deep in pesto preparation. Two are conversing animatedly as they wash the fresh basil, while the others are picking the leaves off the freshly washed stems. Isolated from thoughts of schoolwork and midterms, they clearly relish the time they spend working with their hands. Their reward is a tangible product: a fresh pesto sauce for the tortellini dinner that will feed likely a thousand undergraduates.

If the discovery of handmade pesto had not made me reconsider going off meal plan, the sight of pasta from Venda Ravioli did. A famous Italian restaurant at the center of Federal Hill, Venda Ravioli is one of Providence’s most authentic Italian grocers. And there they were—frozen, handmade noodles ready to be boiled into life as pasta primavera.

Aaron interrupts my thoughts, asking me to guess what time the Ratty starts operating. I consider the question, turning it over in my mind: 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.?

“We have workers arrive here at 4 a.m. to start preparing the handmade pizza dough for the eateries and Ratty meals. Every pizza cooked at Andrews comes from the Ratty daily. There is a two-hour break between when Andrews closes at 2 a.m. and the Ratty opens at 4 a.m. and the process begins once again.”

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Before I leave, I ask Aaron about his weekend plans. He smiles genuinely as he says, “I am working a pretty full weekend. I’ll be handling four major alumni events on campus. But I am lucky that I get to plan the menu for these catering events.” He later discloses that he’ll be working almost 14 days straight. I don’t know how to respond after this, but he says: “You go home happy when this is what you do for a living.”