Tom Ramsey: From “Guy’s Grocery Games” Contestant to Swarthmore’s New Executive Chef

Swarthmore Dining underwent significant changes since the start of the academic year — most notably, the transition from Sharples Dining Hall to the Dining and Community Commons in October 2022. Dining Services has also added new members to its team, including Executive Chef Tom Ramsey, who started work at Swarthmore in November 2022 alongside the opening of the new Dining Center.

When the Dining Center first opened, however, dining services did not have an Executive Chef on staff. In an interview with The Phoenix, Director of Dining Services Linda McDougall explained that the role was occupied by various staff members.

“For the first several weeks [in the new dining hall] we were also without an Executive Chef. We are so lucky that we have some extraordinary culinarians who stepped up and filled those shoes without even being asked. They saw a need and jumped right in,” she said. 

McDougall explained that, as dining staff transitioned from Sharples into the new Dining Center, staff members needed to adapt quickly and confront new obstacles during the five-day transition period. Staff members needed to set up their work stations while also navigating the new technology that was installed. Furthermore, construction was still not complete when this transition was occurring.

Despite the quick and laborious changeover into the Dining Center, Ramsey’s transition into the role of Executive Chef was smooth. In an interview with The Phoenix, Ramsey described his transition into his new role. 

“My transition into my current role has been seamless. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to work in,” Ramsey said. “We have a very talented team that is passionate about serving great food and having fun while we do it.”

Fortunately, for the daily operations in the Dining Center, the new equipment in the Dining Center has changed the way the staff prepares and distributes meals, allowing for a streamlined process. 

“The equipment that we have is state of the art with cooking techniques and technology. We can produce large amounts of food in a relatively short time, that alone makes our day run a lot smoother,” Ramsey said. “With the technology that is in the equipment, we can program our recipes into the units and press a button for it to start and the food will come out perfect each time,” Ramsey revealed.

As Executive Chef, Ramsey serves a key role in maintaining the operations of dining at Swarthmore. Ramsey explained his role as Executive Chef and his mission to create an efficient and quality work environment. Each day, he writes daily menus, trains the dining team on new recipes, and streamlines systems in the food program to encourage food safety and quality. 

Ramsey also explained that he strives to create bonds with his fellow staff members while maintaining his responsibilities as executive chef. 

“Each day when I get into the dining hall, my first order of business is to go to everyone and say hello or good morning. Once that is done, I check in with the culinary team. This check-in includes asking if they need any help preparing any of the food for the day, confirm[ing] that they have the recipes to prepare the menu, [and ensuring] that we have everything in-house to serve the menu.”

With his role, Ramsey hopes to expand the Dining Center’s menu even further by offering cuisines from a variety of cultures. 

“I plan on offering more diverse cuisine to the menu, including South Africa, Puerto Rico, Greece, Southeast Asia, and Italian,” Ramsey said. 

Ironically, Ramsey’s favorite meal to prepare for himself in the dining hall is deceptively simple: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

“I make my own peanut butter and add protein powder to it; I make the fruit preserves from whatever fresh fruit we have; we bake our bread. It’s simple but not so simple.”

So far, the recipes have been a hit. In an interview with The Phoenix, Zoe Myers-Bochner ’23 shared her thoughts on the Dining Center’s changes initiated by Ramsey and the dining staff. 

“I think one of the constants in my time at Swarthmore has been the food being the same. The only time that it’s really changed is this spring,” she said. “They’re starting to implement new recipes now and honestly, I’ve seen it. I’ve walked into several Sundays for brunch, and they had avocado toast. And like the one time that they had, like, peanut butter and banana toast — that was really good,” Myers-Bochner added. 

Ramsey has a storied background as a chef. Before Swarthmore, Ramsey was in the culinary field for over twenty years and received a certificate from the Culinary Institute of America. His previous roles include Resident District Executive Chef at Drexel University, Executive Chef at Harrah’s Casino in Chester, Food and Beverage Director at Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill, NJ, and District Chef for the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

In addition, Ramsey was a contestant on “Guy’s Guys,” a spinoff of “Guy’s Grocery Games.” Even though Ramsey did not take home first place, he was grateful for the opportunity to compete with talented chefs from all across the country.

“The show experience was really awesome, the Food Network flew me to California for two days where I competed against three other chefs who worked for Guy Fieri,” he said. “We ran around the store like crazy people coming up with meals. The first meal had to be a burger without a bun or ground beef, [and] the second meal had to be something that was meaningful to us.”

Ramsey also reflected on his time at Drexel, where he oversaw large service operations alongside 25 managers and five chefs. While Ramsey enjoyed his work at Drexel, he noted the considerable differences between Drexel and Swarthmore — most notably, the fact that Drexel’s campus is about three times the size of Swarthmore’s. This size difference, Ramsey explained, came with advantages.   

“Swarthmore is a lot more fun, we have a smaller campus and have the freedom to be a lot more creative with our food. Here, I get feedback directly from the students and the staff as to what they would like us to serve,” Ramsey said. “If [students] see me in the dining hall, [they should] stop me and let me know what I can do to make their dining experience better.” 

When asked to name the best part about his job, Ramsey struggled to name just one. Overall, though, he enjoys interacting with others in the community and watching students enjoy the food that he creates. 

“There are many parts of my job that are my favorites. The staff and the students are my first favorite. I have had the pleasure of speaking to them daily and everyone has been very warm and friendly,” he said. “My second favorite is the opportunity to help feed over 2,000 meals a day and provide a moment of joy to people when they consume the food I helped prepare.”

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